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Monday, March 16, 2009

Just Breathe...


Seek first to understand then to be understood.Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Covey tells a story about being on a train during a crazy moment. Two young children jumped on chairs, shouted and chased each other. Their behavior was better suited to a playground, not a public transit system. In the confinement of the train, people stared at the father with increasing impatience and agitation, demanding action with their eyes. The father sat oblivious to the silent demands and to his children, who’s activity increased in volume and intensity. When confronted about his kids needing attention, the father noticed his children as if breaking from a trance and seemed helpless to act. Apologetically, he explained that they’d come from the hospital where his wife just died. The father said he did not know how to tell his children that they’d lost their mother. What was apparent from a distance of a man with undisciplined children shielded the passengers from the deeper reality of pain and loss.

In “The Red Shoe” by Linda Webb (full text), an article from Education Leadership (September 2000), the author tells a story about her childhood experience entering kindergarten. Full of enthusiasm for the exciting world of school, she did everything asked of her in class. One day the children demonstrated if they knew how to tie their shoes. The girl volunteered to go first. She began tying her shoe using her teeth to pull the shoelace through the loop made with her fingers. Aghast, the teacher shouted, “Nasty Girl! What would your mother think of you putting that in your mouth?” What the teacher did not know is that the kindergartener’s mother was born without hands. The girl learned to tie her shoes from her mother.

Seek first to understand then to be understood.” This Covey principle deals with being open to other people even when their actions or beliefs seem in opposition to our own. So when a person says something that makes me think they’re from another planet or the thought bubble that appears is, “I can’t believe you said that,” the temptation is to mentally close the door on them. Disengage in further genuine conversation, and if I can’t leave immediately, then watch the clock for when leaving is possible. Most times, I resist this urge and ask questions to understand that person’s point of view. Rather than set them up for failure by shutting down, inquiry gives the person voice, opportunity to express themselves. I may discover a perspective that brings me pause to consider. In the end, I may discover a new understanding, or respectfully agree to disagree.

People, especially children, need their voices to be heard. When their actions or behaviors appear strange or inappropriate, it’s tempting to make executive decisions and move on. So much more is gain time is taken to understand, as was needed for the man on the train and the kindergartner.

Seek to understand before being understood” reminds me to breathe. It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment, focus on one view, and miss the crucial detail. Consider an experiment on video. In it, people wearing white shirts and black shirts, pass two basketballs. As you watch, count how many passes are made by the players in white shirts.



Did you count 13, 14, 15, or 18?


Notice anything?


Try this video instead, and count the passes by the players in white shirts.



Did you see the AgLoLrIiRlOlGa the first time?

When dealing with someone who I do not understand or agree with, this is tough to do in situations that are tense, emotional, or demand a decision. Breathing helps a person to pause long enough from acting so as to suspend judgment and consider the other person’s perspective. In some difficult situations, filled with tension and anger drives people to fight or flight. The person who flees or loses the battle is voiceless.

At a steering committee, members tackled the complex issue of drafting minimum competencies for computer skills by employees. I was among advocates who laid out a rationale and suggested guidelines to support the educators in the building to develop needed core skills to do their work and bridge the cultural gap between them and their technology literate students. The discussion seemed amicable and supportive of implementation when one fellow teacher expressed opposition to the plan. Her tone moved from conversational to argumentative to punishing statements that bordered on bullying. Any reasoning that I or others said seemed only to inflame her more. She used words and tone as a weapon to beat us into silence. Finally, a break was called in hopes that the tension would abate.

As combatants went to separate corners, I approached the leader of the opposition and asked her to explain her reasons. Her words were like a rough wind buffeting me. I leaned into the gale seeking understanding to the meaning behind her attack. Why, I wondered, was she so upset?

What became clear was that she was afraid of failure. Lacking computer skills, she did not want to be labeled. Prideful of her skills as a professional, admitting that she was unskilled in technology was a heavy blow to her confidence. I let her know that I understood how she felt, and that guiding her to the needed skills would be my personal mission. She felt heard. She believed that support would be at hand to ensure her success. Opposition dissolved.

While adults need to be heard, students are especially in need. An elementary child might be a monster in the classroom, doing everything possible to disrupt class from screaming, damaging property, to hitting other kids. Discipline is necessary to maintain authority, and understanding is a way to discovering and eliminating the on-going problem. What if the child’s parents are divorcing, and the kid believes demanding attention will bring them back together? Knowing the background, what if an adult talked to the child about the pain of parents separating, and suggests that positive attention is better than negative attention? How might that child respond? Or, what if the student is sent to the principal’s office, and, ultimately, is suspended for the improper behavior, but the root of the behavior is never explored with the child.

The beginning of a school year, I welcomed high school students to English class. One student, a large teen with a shock of curly red hair, entered class. Tardy, he strolled across the room with an amused expression as if challenging me to say something. Some would have asked for a tardy pass, and when one was not forth coming, sent him back to the office. As I breathed, something about his manner suggested taking a different course of action. Ignoring him, I continued the introduction. Seated, he tried to “press buttons” that would get my attention and send him swiftly to the discipline office.

Finally, I had him step outside of the classroom. He looked at the other students, moving with a triumphant swagger. He believed that his prediction would come true, that I would send him to the assistant principal’s office. Outside of the classroom, I asked him why he tried to disrupt the class when I’d done nothing to him? Belligerent at first, his words were like rushing water. I stood in the stream, allowing the water to pass. Breathing deeply, I held my objective in mind—to understand him and connect with his sense of fairness. His words turned from his game and became about his feelings of frustration and anger that he was labeled for failure. I was one of few adults who gave him space for his voice. He remained a constant challenge, but he came to my class and strove to be part of the community.

What I learn from these experiences is that breathing is a constant challenge. When stress is high, the airwaves constrict as instinct says there’s little time to breathe. Pausing even a few seconds can make the difference. Hopefully these stories help you to understand my perspective. If not, breathe, and search for the gorilla. :)