[DepositPhotos.com has the above photo in their "business argument" search.]
I'm starting to think that the infinitive "to butt heads" and the plural noun "buttheads" aren't all that different. In my new role as a class dean, I have a lot more contact with constituents who have strong opinions than I did in my role as a classroom teacher. In that capacity, I worked primarily with students who cared more about getting good grades from me than they cared about proving that they were right. Had the power dynamic in my classroom been more equal, perhaps more of them would have been willing to go toe-to-toe with me when they thought I was wrong, but the hierarchy in a classroom is clearly delineated because the teacher has full authority to assess the student. In my teaching career, I've tried to use that power for the benefit of my students. (If you're a former student of mine reading this post and feel that you had to learn something against your better judgment in order to receive a good grade from me, I hope you'll have the courage to contact me now and explain. I'd like to do better.)
Dean relationships are different. In this capacity, in addition to my work with students, I interact with parents, teachers, and administrators, none of whom I have any positional authority over. I cannot give them bad grades if they don't produce the results I seek. Moreover, parents protect their children fiercely from whatever they believe might inflict harm, and some see me as potential harm. Teachers and administrators are used to being the experts in the room; we often wrap our identities in with knowing more and being right. In my short stretch in this new role, I'm learning lessons that are helping me navigate my other professional and personal identities in spaces where I am not the ultimate authority on what's best.
First, I've relearned the value of deep listening. Sometimes, what upset people want more than anything else is to be heard and understood. Even when I don't agree with or support someone's actions, views, plans, or goals, I can listen to them carefully and make my understanding of their points clear.
Second, when people are upset about anything, they often feel upset about everything. If a parent's child has been hurt, that parent may well see me as a synecdoche for everything that's upsetting their child. In those cases, defending my point of view is at best useless and at way-more-likely, counter-productive. If I insist on being seen as right, I'm likely to anger the parent more. Instead, I've learned to apologize for the situation and the way they're feeling (which isn't the same as taking responsibility for causing the harm, which I won't do unless I am to blame). In these cases, I'm working to remember that I don't need to be heard, not because I'm wrong but because people who are upset won't hear me. Only if I can deescalate the situation can I have any hope of making my case.
Third, I've learned that butting heads is for buttheads. When people lock horns and argue about something, they're not trying to come to an agreement that works for everyone involved; they're trying to win. But if one person's winning means the other one's losing, then the whole framework is broken. In productive and amicable relationships, we need to give and take. While I might not initially agree with parents on the best way to move forward, I have to remember that we all want what's best for the children. If we start from that shared value, we can often move towards outcomes that everyone appreciates and enforces.
Okay, big transition for a second, but I'll get back to the topic in a second.
Have I mentioned on this blog that I'm a triple Leo. I can't blame the stars for the troubling aspects of my personality (nor do I give them credit for any thoughtful choices I make), but I can tell you that I fit the zodiac's description quite well, including that I can be ridiculously stubborn. For my whole life, I have tried to get the last word in every argument and have stuck to my ideas past when I might start to see the gaps. In deaning, this inflexibility doesn't help me.
Instead, I've been trying to model myself after the safety features of my last car. After two members of my family were in a terrible car accident (thank goodness they're both okay now), the police department had to pry the glove box open with a crowbar to retrieve our paperwork. The storage area had gotten mangled because my husband's knee went through it in the crash. What blew my mind and keeps me thinking about this fact is that my husband's knee was fine, without any scratches. The Audi designers figured out how to make the car crumple to protect the passenger. In my job, sometimes I have to be the car, taking the crumple myself to shield the students in my care. And I'm learning to be okay with that.
Have you ever had to crumple in order to protect someone or had to be the one to yield so that you could help move a relationship forward? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
6 thoughts on “227. Why Crumple”
I love your method of listening and understanding rather than countering. It can be hard to do, but I think it is the mature and productive way to move forward. I can think of only one instance where it didn’t help and the person kept pushing. I had to end that friendship.
Thanks. I’ve been trying hard, especially in my new role that does involve a lot of fixing things, to figure out when hearing people out is all the fixing I should do. I’m realizing that a lot of people feel unheard. It’s lonely.
I suggest trying very hard not to apologize for anything that isn’t your fault. Too many people interpret “I’m sorry” to mean “I did something wrong.” Instead, I suggest that you commiserate on a rough situation and sympathize with the hurt party’s feelings. (Also, some people, possibly including me, might get offended at any sentence that started, “I’m sorry you,” as in “I’m sorry you feel that way.”)
Also, I really like that this post involves heads, toes, and butts!
Thanks, I’m not at all sorry to read your comment!
Isn’t it interesting that so little time is spent teaching the skill of listening. I believe that the “need to be right” is at the root of many communication struggles. It certainly interferes with deep listening if my concern is proving my point. I’m very happy to read that those in the accident are ok.
Thanks, Nancy. It’s great to hear from you. Yes, I fall into the trap of wanting to be right; sometimes I tell myself it’s a danger of being a teacher, where I’m often the authority in the room. And then I remind myself that being good at knowing grammar rules doesn’t make me the arbiter of anything else. Plus, even in my teaching, if I don’t listen well enough to know what they don’t know, I’m useless. Deep listening is so often the key to meeting people where they are and forming productive relationships from there.