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Hope to see you in August!
We all spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get people to do what we want them to do. How can I make my boyfriend commit? How do I get my kids to clean their rooms? How do I stop that guy at work from coming in late every day? There are so many different tactics that we attempt to use in order to get what we want. We try to give someone “a taste of their own medicine” with the hopes that they’ll figure out how we feel. We try to buy someone off, or punish them by giving them the cold shoulder. There’s a million games that we play in relationships – and often they backfire.
For example, huge issues quickly arose when a dear friend of mine and I moved in together, but had never discussed what it meant to each of us to be roommates. Her picture was that we would do everything together, and she was very upset to find that I carried on my life much as I had before we moved in together. The angrier she got that I was leaving her out, the more frustrated I became that she was trying to control me. Looking back, I realize that the whole situation could easily have been avoided if we’d actually had a conversation about our picture of what living together would look like, instead of us each lashing out and getting angry with each other.
One of the things that can really help prevent problems from arising in relationships of any kind is to have a clear understanding of the social contract which establishes the “rules” for the relationship. When we actually make these rules explicit, it ensures that everyone is on the same page. Often, the problems that arise are simply because there is a difference in expectations.
I heard a story about the staff a daycare centre that was frustrated with parents who were picking up their children late. They decided to implement a late fee – a certain amount for each minute the parent was late in picking up their child. To their surprise, instead of solving their problem, it actually made it worse. Instead of parents feeling like they needed to be there on time, parents felt that as long as they paid the fee, it was ok to be late now. Daycare staff and parents had very different pictures of how the relationship was going to work. How different might this have turned out if instead of implementing the fee, the daycare staff had simply talked to the parents about how important it was to have the children picked up on time so that staff were not working overtime and being forced to miss out on their own family obligations?
How often do conflicts happen in life because we just haven’t really talked? Instead of playing games, trying to understand and be understood?
I used to get frustrated about how much time got wasted in my workplace. People would interrupt me when I was working to chat about the weekend, or things going on in their lives. I welcomed the odd storm day that forced me to work from home, as I could get so much accomplished when I was able to work without all those distractions.
But if you really want to talk about efficiency, email has been an amazing time saver. I’m part of a diminishing group of people who used to work before there was such a thing as email. Looking back, it’s mind boggling to think of how much longer it took us to do business when you actually had to catch someone on the phone to talk. I can fire off a dozen emails in the time it used to take me to make one phone call. And when things had to be done by phone, you couldn’t just get straight down to business either – that would seem rude. So you had to do the small talk, chit-chat thing before moving on to your real reason for the call. What a massive waste of time!
Except that it wasn’t.
I’ve seen good ideas wither on the vine because people could not work together to make them happen. I’ve seen how simple tasks can become incredibly complex because people are playing games, or don’t want to put in any effort for someone they feel doesn’t respect them.
I appreciate now that everything about work is really about people. Without relationships, very little happens efficiently. Differences of opinion do not turn into battles or become personal attacks when opposing sides know and respect each other. Good ideas can turn into great ones when people go the extra mile with their contributions to a project.
So I’ve changed my tune. Spending time building relationships does not interfere with my work. It is my work. Although I still appreciate the time saving that things like email have brought, I’m also aware that I need to attend to the people I work with – not just our tasks. After all, belonging is a basic human need, and without it, things go off kilter.
I heard a great line recently that I think sums this idea up very well: We need to loiter with intent. We need to hang out with people, get to know them, build relationships. Sure – it can be a break from work, but remember – it’s not a waste of time.
I’ve been working my way through a really cool course… it’s all about how those of us who work with Indigenous people can cultural safety in our practice. I have to admit, I was skeptical about how painful it might be to do an online course – but it’s really well done, and I’ve quite enjoyed it If you are interested, you can learn more about it here.
However, it’s not to plug this course that has led me to this post today. I had a bit of an “aha” moment when I was working my way through a section today that I really wanted to share.
They were talking specifically about the experience of Indigenous people with the health care system, and how so many times, people’s different experiences, perspectives and beliefs are not valued. The comment was made that we should not approach Aboriginal people as if we know what’s best for them. The importance of listening, and working to understand where a person is coming from and what is important to them is key in truly helping a person. For example, it’s easy to tell a person that they should be eating a healthier diet, but without listening, you might not find out the challenges of doing so in a remote community where fresh fruit and vegetables are not readily available or financially reasonable to purchase.
What struck me is that this is really true for every person in a helping relationship. It’s so easy to think that we have all the answers and know what’s best for a person. But each person is truly unique – with a different balance of basic needs, and different preferences about how to achieve these needs. What works for me to fill my need for connection with others may totally backfire for someone else. The things that make me feel powerful and like I can make a difference in the world are not the same as they are for others. My idea of fun and freedom is not skydiving out of an airplane – but it is for many other people.
Yet, it’s so easy when we are working with people to make judgments and think we know the answers to people’s struggles. I know I catch myself all the time thinking “If only this person would….”, without really honoring the fact that whatever they are doing they are doing for a reason. If only I was able to slow down and explore the reasons, perhaps I could be a better helper….
Perhaps those of us in the helping professions need to ask ourselves – are we simply telling people what to do, or are we seeking to truly understand and help people find what’s right for them?
I was stuck. I didn’t know what I should do. On one hand, there seemed a clear course of action that I should take. I have always considered myself an advocate, and there was certainly an issue on the table that was worth fighting for. Yet, on the other hand, there was something that didn’t feel right about this. I had this nagging feeling that I might be doing more harm than good, and that perhaps there was another way of tackling this problem that might yield more effective results.
Or was that a cop-out? Was I just rationalizing so that I could avoid a struggle? After all, how many worthwhile causes were won without some personal sacrifice on the part of those fighting for the cause? Was I just being a wimp?
But at the same time, I’ve seen people completely ignored and written off as crazy when they take on a battle only to have someone else come along and attack the same problem with a grace and skill that wins people over and achieves the desired outcome.
What to do?
I’m fortunate to have a very smart friend with whom I was sharing my woes who, instead of telling me what to do, asked me a question.
“What would a leader do in this situation?”
I didn’t even have to pause to answer this question. My choice became crystal-clear. And I haven’t had a moment of doubt since.
The problem was, I’d become hung up on a label that limited me. Now, it’s not that being an advocate is a bad thing. In fact, it’s still something I strive hard to be. But when I got stuck, it was like being hit by a lightning bolt to try on another label that describes another characteristic that is part of the person I want to be.
This experience has made me think about how I might be able to support others in finding the answers to their own struggles by connecting them with the kind of person they want to be.
When someone is fighting because he wants to be strong, what would happen if I asked them what a kind person would do in this situation?
When someone is reacting because they want to be heard, what would happen if I asked them how a thoughtful person might respond?
What labels have you seen drive the behaviour of others that, while on one hand are very valid, on the other, are restricting their possibilities?
What labels may be doing this to you?
With the end of the school year quickly approaching, I was reflecting with one of my students about all that she has gone through this year. It hasn’t been an easy road for her. There are many things she had to tackle that I wish had never happened. She’s had pain that no person should have to deal with. It would have been easy for her to become bitter, angry, and throw in the towel in the face of such adversity. It would actually be quite understandable.
If either of us had the power to change what happened, we certainly would. But as we talked, I realized there was another side to her experience. She didn’t give up; in fact, she has grown a lot this year, and not just academically. She’s learned a lot about relationships, coping strategies, leadership, and the skills and strength that she possesses. I do feel some sense of comfort as she leaves the walls of our little school and heads out into the big scary world that she is leaving with the knowledge that she has the ability to handle whatever the world throws at her.
I think about how often I get angry at the situations in my own life that I think are unfair. The difficult people that I have to deal with that frustrate me. The obstacles that get in my way. I don’t feel grateful for these experiences…. but maybe I should. I’m far from perfect, but navigating through these circumstances has taught me to be more patient, kind, and understanding. I’ve learned to be a better listener, and to be more collaborative in my work. I do think I’m a better person because of the tough times.
I’m not sure I’ll be able to muster gratitude the next time life kicks me in the teeth. It’s tough to see the positive when the negative is so overwhelming.
But I hope I can. I think I could find a little more peace in my corner of the world if I could remember that my life might be richer because it doesn’t always go the way I want.
I LOVE this time of year. There is nothing I find more inspiring than an early morning bike ride. The world is still asleep, everything is calm, the air is fresh, and the view amazing as the sun creeps over the horizon in a million shades of colour. I feel strong and healthy with the physical exertion.
And then suddenly – WHAM! My front bike tire kicked up a huge stone, which hit me directly in the eye! I didn’t even see it coming! End to that peaceful, picture-perfect scene.
After the initial shock and realizing I was fine, I started thinking about what an amazing thing the human brain is. Because even though I had no conscious awareness of this thing flying towards my face, somehow my body knew enough to blink. Imagine how ugly this could have been if that stone had hit me in the eyeball!
It’s so cool that our brains have developed this ability to protect ourselves. We don’t have to stop to process and think about what to do. Our reflexes just kick in and defend us from harm.
The thing is, sometimes this wonderfully adaptive feature backfires on us. I think about the many students I’ve worked with over the years who lived in situations of constant fear. Their brains were always on high alert. And their reflexes were firing like crazy to try to shield them from danger.
These kids were in constant “fight or flight” mode. They would either shut down completely or strike out. And often they were labelled with such terms as uncooperative, non-compliant, bully, or violent. The adult response to these labels? Frustration, anger, punishment.
While I am a huge believer that the one thing that we truly control is how we choose to behave in any given situation, I do believe that there are some behaviours that are not chosen. I didn’t choose to blink – my brain kicked into auto-pilot to protect me.
And sometimes I believe that students’ behaviours are no more chosen than my blinking. They are the body’s response to danger.
And instead of creating safety for that child so that they can begin to relax and get in conscious control of themselves again, the labels we attach to them often serve to make them feel even more threatened.
What can you do today to help create the safety that your most at-risk students so desperately need?