Friday, February 21, 2020

Authentic PD: 7 Benefits of a Book Tasting Event for Your Teachers


We recently had a full PD Day for teachers in our building and wanted to do something special to start off the day. I'd heard of book tastings from my Twitter PLN and wanted to give it a try.

A book tasting is an event where people sample different books in a relatively short period of time. I was lucky to have some fantastic help with decorations, planning for food, and setting up our "book store" area.

At our book tasting, we selected about 75 books we felt added value to teaching and learning. Some of them were not necessarily education books. We also included books from psychology, personal growth, leadership, and more.



There were approximately 55 teachers included in our event, so we had plenty of extra books on hand. For each round, participants would select a book to review. We set a timer for 5 minutes for participants to quickly scan the book, look at the table of contents, pick out some interesting quotes, and take a few notes.

Each participant had a "menu" to help guide their book tasting experience. It included some general instructions and some questions to guide thinking.



Menu adapted from: http://traceyraimondo.com/2018/04/17/host-a-book-tasting-for-teachers-professional-learning-never-tasted-so-good/

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

How Humor Contributes to School Culture


I'm not sure exactly how it got started, but for the past few years I've shared a joke every morning with our entire building to start the school day.

It's important to me to help get each day off to a good start and part of that is my daily attempt to inject some humor. Let me tell you, though, it can be a lot of pressure to have a new joke every day. I am constantly searching for new material.

And I have to admit, my jokes get a mixed response. In my mind, people are laughing all over the building. But in reality, I think mostly it's eye rolling that's happening all around the building.

But there have been some interesting things that have happened as a result of this simple routine.

1. Students and staff share jokes with me regularly. I guess they think I need some better material. A teacher recently sent a student out of class to find me, because they had a really good joke for me.

2. When I see parents, they will share jokes with me. They always think their jokes are the funniest. I bet their kids disagree.

3. Multiple students have bought me joke books. "Hey, Dr. G, I picked up this book for you at Barnes and Noble over the weekend. You need all the help you can get!" 

4. One student rates my jokes each day. When he sees me, he will say, "Dr. G, your joke today was a 3 out of 10." I rarely get higher than a 5 or 6, and often it's a 1 or 2. Oh well.

5. On a survey of my faculty for feedback on my performance as their principal, one comment suggested that I should "watch some professional comedians and take notes." I wasn't sure how to take that.

6. We occasionally have some students and staff members who provide the guest joke of the day, to offer some variety.

7. We've also had joke battles. A student tells a joke. I tell a joke. And then everyone votes for which one they liked best via Google Forms. I've lost the joke battle every time.

8. One student in particular, who is living in extreme poverty and struggles in school, has been a joke champion for me. He has the best jokes, and he is constantly helping me with my material. I think he gains something significant from that. I know I do.

9. When students were asked to write notes of thanks/encouragement to a staff member, I was grateful to receive a couple that mentioned that they liked my jokes. Those kids are going to go far in life!!!

It's probably clear to you now that this joke of the day thing is really not about the jokes. 

It's about making connections.

It's about a sense of belonging.

It's about creating an environment that kids and adults enjoy. 

It's about bringing people together. 

And those are things that really matter for nurturing your school culture.

What rituals do you have at your school that contribute to your school culture? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter. I would love to hear from you.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Experience Alone Is Not Enough


I recently finished reading Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

One of the things in the book that was interesting to me was related to the impact of experience on performance. In 2005, Harvard Medical School published a review of existing studies on how years of practice in the field influences the care of doctors.
"If years of practice make physicians better, then the quality of care they give should increase as they amass more experience. But just the opposite was true. In almost every one of the five dozen studies included in the review, doctors' performance grew worse over time or, at best, stayed about the same.
 The older doctors knew less and did worse in terms of providing appropriate care than doctors with far fewer years of experience, and researchers concluded that it was likely the older doctors' patients fared worse because of it. Only two of sixty-two studies had found doctors to have gotten better with experience."
Other studies have noted similar results when looking at medical professional decisions as well as the performance of nurses. Counter to what might seem intuitive, experience didn't seem to correlate with improvement. The reasons for this phenomenon aren't completely known. However, it seems very clear that with few exceptions, experience alone is not enough.

I'm guessing this truth might also apply to educators. If you've worked in education long enough, you've probably observed people who have continued to grow and improve, but you've probably also noticed that some people tend to stay the same in spite of experience, or even decline in some sad cases.

So what makes the difference? How can experience be valuable to continued growth and improvement?

Here are three ideas I might suggest...

1. Not knowing can be a strength. 

As we gain experience in the profession, we can fall into the trap of being certain about things when we shouldn't be. We are no longer curious or open to other perspectives or open to new information. We cling to our beliefs even when they aren't true or helpful. A better approach is to test our ideas and beliefs and seek opportunities to abandon unhelpful approaches in light of new information and possibilities. Sometimes unlearning can be as valuable as learning.

How are you challenging your own beliefs and practices?

2. Widen your perspective.

While we may feel experienced because of the amount of time we've spent in education, our experience may be limited in its useful because of the context that surrounds us. In other words, unless I see beyond my classroom or school, I may not be able to accurately reflect on what is possible for my classroom or school.

Something that has been helpful to my own growth has been examining my own experiences with those of others from different schools. I've learned from visiting others schools, from connecting with other educators outside of my school, from hearing their stories, and from consistent engagement with the larger education world on Twitter. I've also gained perspective from reading professional books and articles. It's important for ALL educators to pursue these types of opportunities to support their own growth.

If we don't widen our perspective, we create a type of professional bubble, where the types of ideas and practices we know and develop are probably very limited. We don't know what we don't know, and we get locked into a certain type of thinking.

How are you seeking to widen your perspective beyond your current context?

3. Reflection is required for learning

As John Dewey said, "We don't learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience." Experience alone will not result in growth or change. We must have a process for collecting feedback about our experience and then considering how we might adjust in light of that new information.

If we're not careful, we rush on to the next thing without slowing down to consider what might be different next time. The tyranny of the urgent keeps us from a process of reflection and adjustments that might result in a better learning experience for our students.

How are you developing and refining a process for continual reflection?

Does this sound right to you? What are your thoughts on experience and effectiveness? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

3 Lessons from the Life of Fred Rogers and "It's a Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood"


This past weekend I watched the movie It's a Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood for the second time. Like many educators, I'm a big fan of Fred Rogers. I grew up watching Mr. Rogers. I'm grateful for the impact he had on so many during his lifetime.

While there are countless lessons from his life and from the movie, I wanted to share three things that really stood out to me.

1. "I don't think anybody can grow unless he really is accepted exactly how he is." Fred Rogers

Mr. Rogers loved people. He understood children. He remembered what childhood was like, the good things and the hard things too. He meets them where they are. He is accepting of others. And as a result, he had a tremendous impact on generations of children. All of us as educators should be reminded to accept our students where they are. 

2. When the journalist Lloyd Vogul is introduced to Joanne Rogers, he asks, "How does it feel to be married to a living saint?"

"You know I'm not fond of that term. If you think of him as a saint then his way of being is unattainable," she replies.

"He works at it all the time. It's a practice. He's not a perfect person. He has a temper. He chooses how he responds to that anger."

"It must take a lot of effort," Lloyd said.

"He does things every day that help to ground him. He reads scripture. Swims laps. Prays for people by name. Writes letters, hundreds of them. He's been doing that since I met him."

Developing strength of character is not an accident. It takes intentional effort. It takes practice. Mr. Rogers had a specific routine for strengthening his character. How are you developing your own character and leadership?

3. Fred responds to Lloyd's pointed comment, "Thank you for sharing that perspective."

"I can't imagine it was easy growing up with you as a father," Lloyd admonished.

"Until recently, my oldest never told people about me. He's very private. And that's okay. And my youngest son he genuinely tested me but eventually we found our way and now I'm very proud of both of them. But you are right Lloyd. It couldn't have been easy on them."

And then after he pauses for a moment, Fred continues, "Thank you. Thank you for that perspective."

Fred Rogers is able to acknowledge and even accept the struggles and shortcomings of his own relationships with his sons. That's something Lloyd had failed to come to terms with in his relationship with his own father.

When Lloyd expresses a hard truth of what Fred's sons might have experienced, Fred responds with openness and curiosity. He responds as if this is a valuable insight and not something hurtful or unfair. 

Fred's response causes me to reflect. How can I listen without judgment? When would be a time I might say, "Thank you for sharing that perspective"?

Read More: How Mr. Rogers reminds me of my purpose as an educator and father by Sean Gaillard

Have you seen the movie, "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood"? What did you think? Did you like it? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

5 Simple Habits to Build Connection With Your Students


Creating stronger connections with your students doesn't require grand gestures. But it does require some intentional behaviors on the part of the teacher. It requires taking action.

But these actions can be simple in the sense that they don't require any extra time. But that doesn't mean it's easy. They do require showing up with a certain emotional readiness, and they require making the effort to work at the interactions you're having each day.


"Every interaction is an opportunity 
for building relationships."

For elementary school teachers who see the same kids all day, these things may seem almost too obvious. I don’t know for certain, but I’m guessing these things might be more common in elementary.

But in middle school and high school, where teachers see so many different students each day, and the amount of time is so limited, it seems more likely that these things aren’t prioritized as much as they should be. We might tend to focus our energy on other things, but kids of all ages need us to take the leadership to create a warm classroom environment.

Here are 5 things you can do to build connection. If you already do them, you might try to do them even more, or more effectively. Just writing this post is a reminder to me that I can do better.

1. Smile

Every kid wants to feel like they are important, valued, and loved. They want to feel like they matter and that their teacher likes them. They also want to feel like their teacher enjoys them and enjoys teaching them. So smile. That's one of the best ways you can show warmth and care toward your students. 

But don't be fake about it. Fake smiles don't work. Kids can see right through that. You have to prepare yourself emotionally to be fully ready to teach with your heart. When you arrive for school with a full heart, your smile will shine through.

2. Make eye contact

Lots of kids are hurting or have been hurt, and they're moving through their day with their heads down, avoiding interaction because they either lack confidence or think that someone else will hurt them. But these kids need someone to see them. They need someone to notice them and connect with them eye to eye.

Eye contact lets your students know you have their attention. It shows them you're paying attention to them. When they are speaking, it shows them you're listening to them.

I've found that teachers often think they're making eye contact with their students, but they're speaking in the general direction of the class, or they only make eye contact with one side of the room, or with certain students. 

Search out and find the eyes of all the students in your classroom. Really see them, hear them, and understand them.

3. Call students by name

Dale Carnegie said, "A person's name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language." When you call your students by name, you are connecting with their identity, their individuality. 

Learn the names of all your students as soon as possible. As a teacher, I would always make it a point to remember names the first day of school. The students would see me struggle, make mistakes, but continue to practice as I went around the room saying their names until I could get them all. 

Make sure you learn to say their names correctly. There were names that were tricky for me over the years. Other people might be able to get them easily, but I had to work at it. I wanted the student to know it mattered to me to say their name correctly, and I would apologize if I didn't get it right.

I think most teachers know it's important to learn student names. But are you intentional about saying the student's name regularly? Do you make it a point to try to say every student's name every time they are in your class? I suspect many teachers are missing lots of opportunities to call students by name.

If a student is in trouble or the teacher needs their attention, you can bet they will hear their name then. But students need to hear their name on a regular basis in each of their classes. They need to know they aren't invisible to you.

4. Say thank you 

While it's great to encourage students with just the right compliment, that's not always easy to do. But it's not difficult to give your students a heartfelt "thank you." Show your appreciation for them. Model the behavior you want to see.

A sincere, heartfelt "thank you" shines your gratitude and appreciation in their direction. It shows them you care. Never, under any circumstances, say thank you in a sarcastic way, "Thank you for finally showing up on time for my class." You'll destroy any connection with that student and create a toxic classroom environment. There's no excuse for biting sarcasm from any educator. 

5. Praise your students

A recent article detailed some of the extraordinary benefits of giving praise to students. The more students were praised, the more engaged they were in their academic tasks. And the more they were scolded, the more they exhibited disengaged, unhelpful behaviors. Praise really works wonders.


I've heard teachers say, "I only want to praise a student when they've done something truly outstanding. I think it lessens the praise if I give it out too freely." Unfortunately, that is a personal preference and not what works best for kids.

Praise even the slightest of improvements. Don't miss a chance to lavish praise on your students. Be generous in your encouragement and affirmation. See the best in each of your students and let them know it. It will give them the confidence to succeed, and they will be forever grateful to you for it.
The person who will influence you the most is the person who believes in you and sees the best in you.
These tips are not difficult. They don't take a lot of time. They just require us to be more intentional. And they're a great start for building those connections. Deeper connection will require even more time, more energy, more conversations, and really getting to know students on a personal level. But you can never go wrong with getting started on the path of connecting with your students.

What are some of your tips for building connection with your students? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Leadership is Energy: Bring It!


Countless books have been written on the topic of leadership. There are styles, and theories, and frameworks.

But at it's essence, leadership is about energy. 

What kind of energy do you bring each day? Are you showing up with enthusiasm and excitement? Are you bringing your best? Are you building stronger relationships? Does your energy inspire others to do more and be more?

Everyone has leadership, because everyone has influence. What you do matters. 

If everyone in your school had your attitude, what kind of place would it be?

Your energy is contagious.

So bring your best energy. Bring your passionate energy. 

Bring your determined energy. Nothing can stand in your way.

Your positive leadership is a result of your positive energy.

But how are you using your leadership? Does it lift up or does it tear down? Are people stronger because of you? Are you growing? Are you giving? Are you grateful? Are you bringing your best?

Your positive risk-taking leads to positive results.

No matter your title, your position, or your background, you can make a difference. If you're on a path of purpose, people will follow.

We're all looking for direction. We're all looking for meaning and significance. We're all looking for someone like you to share your leadership.

Your energy is your leadership. 

Bring it.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

3 Ideas You Must Reject If You Want to Grow


Growth requires change. And it also requires doing some things that aren't comfortable. We all have thought-patterns and beliefs that contribute to our progress or lack of progress. That's why it's so important to challenge any beliefs that might be standing in your way. Get uncomfortable by choosing some new habits of mind!

Here are 3 Ideas You Must Reject If You Want To Grow

1. Reject Your Self-Limiting Beliefs

Be careful of deciding that you're just not the type of person that could ever be good at a certain thing. Those limits may hold you back in ways you can't even imagine.

"I'm not creative."

"I'm not good with technology."

"I'm not athletic."

"I'm not organized."

"I don't have much energy."

"I'm not good at classroom management."

Reject these beliefs. Or whatever limiting beliefs you might have. They don't serve you well. Open yourself up to new possibilities. Take small steps to expand yourself. You have unknown and unlimited capacity. 

But these things are true, you say. No! These things are beliefs, not truths.

When you notice your limiting beliefs invading, reject them immediately...

"I'm experimenting with my creativity."

"I'm learning new things about technology every day."

"I'm getting more fit with each workout."

"I'm trying some new organization strategies."

"I have boundless energy."

"I set boundaries in my classroom, and I stick to them."

Read More: 4 Steps to Release Limiting Beliefs from Psychology Today


2. Reject the Idea That Experience Makes You Great

Some people believe the key to improving is just having more experience. But various studies have shown that experience doesn't necessarily correlate to greater knowledge or skills or improved performance.

Many people get to a certain level of effectiveness, often a minimum acceptable level, and become content to just stay there. They hit cruise control. As a result, their performance in the 10th year in the profession isn't much different than their performance in the 3rd year. They are doing the same things over and over like the entire town in the movie Groundhog Day!

The only way experience actually makes you better is through feedback, reflection, and adaptability. You must have a process for learning and action. 

Experience can be an excellent laboratory for growth, but only if you are using your experience to inform your efforts to build your own knowledge, skills, and other positive characteristics.

Read More: Experience Doesn't Predict a New Hires Success from Harvard Business Review

3. Reject the Notion That Trying Harder Is Enough

I've known many educators who are stressed out, burnt out, and maxed out because they keep trying to do more and more. They feel stuck. They feel like things aren't working, and the way they respond is to work even harder, to spend more time doing the same things.

And that type of determination is admirable to me. These educators are committed professionals who care so much about kids and learning they are willing to do whatever it takes. 

But it's not healthy.

And in the end, it's not effective. If you burn the candle at both ends for too long, eventually you're just melted wax.

A better approach is to work smarter, not harder. 

Instead of trying to do more, develop a process that helps you be more. Take care of yourself. Be healthy. Feed your mind and renew your energy every day.

Rather than spending more time with the same old methods you've always used, take some time to develop new knowledge and skills. What got you here, won't get you to the next level. 

Nothing's gonna change if nothing changes.

Be willing to try different approaches that might work more efficiently. Instead of trying to do more, try something different. That's where your creativity, your problem solving, and your innovation come into play.

Read More:

The Importance of Daily Renewal for Educators

When Trying Harder Doesn't Help from LeadershipFreak


What's your experience with overcoming mindsets that aren't helpful to your progress? I'm interested to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Knowing vs. Understanding vs. Applying


The focus of traditional education has mostly been on knowledge. The focus has been on learning more information. But now we have more information available to us than ever before. And the amount of information out there is growing exponentially. 

And this rapidly growing body of information is readily available. We can access it at any time in any place at the tip of our fingers with a connected device. Our tools have transformed our experience. So while learning information still has some value, it's not as valuable as it once was.

So what about teaching for understanding? That raises the bar a little I think. While teaching for knowing is about accumulating more information, teaching for understanding is about making sense of that information and seeing how the pieces fit together. It's recognizing the context of the information, why the information is important, and how the information might be applied.

Teaching for understanding is a deeper type of learning. It involves critical thinking, making personal connections, and being able to have discussions and make arguments about the information. But it's not actually applying the information.

For me, that's the true test of learning. How can you apply what you know? How are you applying your learning? The most important thing for our students is what they are able to do. Application is seeing knowledge and understanding in action. 

When we talk about students being ready for life, it's about them being able to do things to contribute and make a difference. 

Doing makes the difference.

I think traditional education has mostly assumed that students would be able to take their knowledge and understanding and apply it as needed. But we know that's not the case. Students are often not able to transfer their knowledge or understanding. They often don't even see the relevance of their knowledge or understanding because they haven't done anything with it. 

And that's the reason why many people find the best learning after their formal education has ended. 



I'm guessing most educators can relate to this very well. To train to be a teacher you go to college and you expand your knowledge and understanding of the teaching profession. Mostly you learn theoretical concepts or discuss various scenarios or established principles in a way that is isolated from actual practice. You take the quizzes. You take the tests. And you write the papers.

And then, you enter your student teaching and the application begins. And you quickly learn that much of what you learned in your coursework is very different from what you learn in actual practice. At least that's how it was for me. There seemed to be a very big disconnect.

To further prove this point, have you ever known someone who aced all of the classes in college to become a teacher, but then struggled mightily to succeed in the classroom? The skills they needed to succeed on the quizzes, tests, and papers in college weren't the same ones needed to succeed in an actual classroom.

After student teaching, your first full year in the profession is still like a crash course. For several years, you continue feeling a little like a beginner but your learning is consistently reaching new levels. The learning from actual practice was actually far more helpful than the learning from education classes.

So all of this brings me to suggest a different way of learning in school, a way that I believe is more effective than starting with knowing and understanding. Let's start with doing. Let's start with solving and creating and applying. 

The student will still need to learn the information and understand the information. But they will see the relevance of the knowing and understanding, because they will need it to succeed in the application of what they are doing. 

They will learn by doing.

And they will be more curious, more engaged, and more empowered because they will have to decide what information and concepts they need to successfully complete the task. They will see how the learning matters and how it makes a difference beyond the classroom. Through this process, they will need lots of guidance and feedback from the teacher, a learning expert. 

That's the role of the modern teacher, to skillfully design learning experiences that help students know more, understand more, and most importantly, do more.

The best learning requires students in action.

What am I missing here? Can we flip the script and get better results? Can we start with the project, or the problem, or the application and learn the content through the process? How are you doing this in your school? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, January 31, 2020

7 Benefits of Apologizing to Your Students


No one is perfect. Not one of us. But if we're not careful, we can fall into the trap of thinking we have to act perfect. 

I find it puzzling how students sometimes have the idea that teachers/principals/educators are somehow above making mistake or should be above making mistakes. 

I remember when I was teaching 9th grade English how students would jump at the chance to point it out if I misspelled a word on the white board, as if I was suddenly an incompetent teacher. They would express shock and dismay that I would make such a mistake.

But without question, I made my fair share of mistakes, and I learned that it was best to admit them and help dispel the myth that teachers don't make mistakes.

But a bigger issue than spelling errors is how we show up in our relationships with our students. And guess what, we're still imperfect. We make mistakes in how we treat others sometimes too. And when we do, the right thing to do, and the most effective thing to do, is to admit our mistakes and apologize for them.

As a principal now, I try to model apologizing to our staff and to our students when I don't meet the mark. I've made more than my share of mistakes. It might be a small thing or it might be something bigger. It might have been overlooked or there might be hurt feelings. Regardless, it's hard to go wrong with a sincere apology.

Here are 7 reasons to apologize or express regret...

1. Shows You're Human

Kids sometimes think their teachers are above making mistakes. But kids need to know we're human too. We are doing the best we can, and we're going to make mistakes. Positive human behavior involves admitting mistakes.

2. Creates a Healthy Example

When students see us apologize and show regret for our actions, it helps them feel more confident to do the same. We get a clearer picture of how things really are when we are honest about our mistakes.

3. Shows Ownership of a Mistake

Students will be more likely to take risks if they know the teacher admits and takes ownership of his or her own mistakes in this classroom.

4. Builds Connection

When you admit mistakes, it makes your relationships stronger because students feel they can trust you.

5. Increases Your Influence

Some people fear admitting a mistake because they think other people will use it against them. But the opposite is usually true. When we admit mistakes, we appear smarter, more confident, and more sincere and that creates allies.

6. Shows You Care

People who won't admit mistakes are often self-focused and want to protect themselves rather than show they care about others. Admitting a mistake is a selfless decision.

7. Develops a Growth Mindset

When you have a growth mindset, you view mistakes as part of learning. Admitting a mistake and apologizing for it, if it hurt someone, is important to be able to move past it and learn from it.

How do you feel relationships are made stronger by apologizing? Can you apologize too much? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Importance of Accepting Different Perspectives


We all see things differently. That's something I continue to learn as an educator and in every other area of life too. I used to get upset if someone expressed an idea I didn't agree with. It would frustrate me to no end if they took a position that seemed unreasonable to me. 

But I've learned that another person's perspective is something they have ownership over, not me. And my job is to listen and try to understand where they're coming from.

And maybe, if they're an open minded person, just maybe they'll be interested in my perspective too.

But be careful. Beware of the person who sets himself up as an authority. Beware of the person who believes he has cornered the truth. Beware of the person who has nothing left to learn.

When a person defines his or her belief as the only reality, that is dangerous indeed. Watch out for the person who has that type of blindness, who believes their perspective is the only one. 

They might say things like...

"I know for a fact..."

"You're wrong."

"You just don't get it."

"You should really do your homework on that."

"That doesn't matter."

"No one agrees with you."

"That never works."

"If you think/believe that, you must be a...moron, racist, tree-hugger, redneck, baby-killer or some other insult." 

It's never healthy to think I can impose my ideas, my opinions, my values, or my beliefs on another person. Our students need to learn to discuss ideas without being dismissive, condescending, or just plain rude. 

Being kind, being caring, being a person of empathy and understanding is more important than being right.

How are you helping your students be more accepting of people who have different ideas, opinions, backgrounds, etc.? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, January 24, 2020

11 Phrases to Effectively Respond to Complaining


Whether you're a teacher or a principal, or have another role as an educator, you probably have interactions on a daily basis that involve complaints coming your way. The complaints might come from students, parents, or colleagues. These interactions can be difficult to handle and can really be a drain on energy and progress.

Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting every time someone brings up a problem, that it's unhelpful complaining. There are definitely complaints, or concerns, that bring light to legitimate issues and the messenger has an honest desire to make things better. Complaints can help us grow and improve.

And then there are complaints that have other, less desirable motives. I think we've all observed unhelpful complaining behaviors. Some people seem to find fault in everything and everyone and cast negative energy upon anyone who will listen. Blaming and complaining are often behaviors used to avoid personal responsibility.

But regardless of the intentions of the complaint, how can we best handle them when they come our way? How can we treat the person with dignity and respect, while still maintaining healthy boundaries? Here are some phrases I've used that have been helpful to me. 

1. "Go on. I'm listening."

It's never helpful for someone to feel like they aren't being heard or understood. So don't be dismissive or uncaring about a complaint when it is expressed. You may feel it is unfair or unhelpful or not a big deal, but hear the person out. Ask lots of questions. Try to understand where they are coming from before you draw conclusions.

2. "Let me see if I got that."

After the person shares what's on their mind, pause to gather your thoughts and then paraphrase what you've heard them say. Sometimes we jump right into "fix-it" mode without really listening to the other person or checking to see if we actually have all of the information. 

3. "Is there more?"

After you paraphrase your understanding back to the person, you can ask again, "Did I get that?" Listen to their response. After it seems that part is fully understood, ask "Is there more?" See what else they might share. You want to really explore what they are communicating and make sure they fully express their thoughts.

4. "I can see you feel..."

This phrase is essential. Help the person recognize the emotion they are feeling in the situation. I can validate their perception of the facts of the situation all day, but the real issue is often how the person feels. Something has bumped into their feelings and until they have the opportunity to express that, no solution is going to be good enough. Often, when they express their feelings and feel heard, the original complaint turns out to be a non-issue. After you make an attempt to name the feeling, check in with them again. "I can see you feel angry/sad about this situation. Is that right?"

5. "What would you like to see happen next?"

After you fully understand the problem and the feelings involved too, talk with the person about possible solutions. Ask them for feedback, "What would you like to see happen in this situation?" If they suggest there is something you can do to resolve it, just keep in mind it's okay to say no or explore other possibilities. Just because they want to see a certain thing happen doesn't mean it's wise, prudent, or fair. The leader may have to help make that decision.

6. "Thank you..."

Complaining can bring a surge of negative energy to an interaction. So after you listen and understand, one way to shift the energy is to complement the person who is bringing the complaint. "Thank you for sharing that perspective. I can see you love and care deeply for your child." 

7. "What did they say when you discussed this with them?"

One thing I always try to avoid is allowing people to skip the chain of command. For example, if a parent is complaining about a situation with a teacher, I will ask, "What did the teacher have to say when you made them aware of the problem?" Most of the time, they never talked with the teacher at all. 

8. "What steps have you taken to try to solve the problem?"

This is a good place to start with exploring possible solutions and reminding the person they have personal power and responsibility in this situation. When I'm working with students, they sometimes act as if there is 100% nothing they can do to solve the problem. They want someone or something outside of themselves to change without ever looking in the mirror. Of course, they can't control what's outside of them, even if they want to. And to be fair, plenty of adults can have this same type of unhealthy thinking.

9. "Does it make sense to discuss this problem more right now?"

Sometimes in meetings or in one-on-one situations, people want to discuss problems that no one who is currently in the conversation has the power to solve. For example, we might complain about issues that involve students, parents, other educators, state mandates, etc. But, let's keep the conversation focused on the people in the room. What are we going to do about this problem? If there is a need to partner with others in addressing the problem, invite them to the next meeting.

10. "I'm not comfortable..."

Sometimes,
colleagues will complain/gossip about other colleagues to a third-party. This triangulation is not healthy and destroys culture. This question can help redirect the person back to the person they are complaining about. "I'm not comfortable discussing this person behind his or her back. I want you to know I would do the same for you. I value you and wouldn't allow someone to speak badly about you behind your back." Of course, if the person is reporting something that is unsafe, illegal, or harmful to kids that's a different type of conversation.

11. "I'm willing to discuss this with you however long it takes until we get this resolved."


When someone brings a sincere complaint about a situation, they may feel like they are being silenced or dismissed if they don't get the immediate response they wanted. But leaders want to stay in dialogue. Leaders want to stand firm on the ideas without becoming adversaries with the individual. It's important to avoid being cast as an opponent. When you tell the person you want to see this resolved to everyone's satisfaction, it shows you value a solution that they can feel good about too. 

What other tips or ideas do you have for dealing with complaining in a productive and positive way? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter

Monday, January 6, 2020

Is It Possible to Have Too Much Empathy?


I recently finished reading A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by by Edwin Friedman. The author shared a number of leadership insights that were helpful to me or at least pushed my thinking.

But one of his positions knocked me back just a little. He builds a case that supports personal responsibility and rails against empathy. I was nodding my head on the personal responsibility ideas but was somewhat puzzled by the anti-empathy ideas. 

Friedman sets forth that empathy is a force that results in a lack of proper relational boundaries. He says empathy deprives organizations of progress and shifts power to the least emotionally healthy members. He says that empathy enables poor behavior and results in a failure to expect the least emotionally healthy members of an organization, or family, or relationship to grow. 

Those all seemed like bold claims to me. I generally view empathy as a good thing, a really good thing. But as I studied his position more carefully and reflected on the many examples he provided, I could also relate to how empathy gone too far can result in enabling dynamics. 

Or, taking empathy too far might result in my sacrificing my principles, beliefs, or convictions to soothe or satisfy another person's emotions or ideas.

So how can we define and practice empathy in healthy ways? How can we keep empathy from going too far?

A healthy sort of empathy is about carefully understanding the perspective of another person. One of my favorite quotes is from Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. He says, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."

Healthy empathy is about being open to another person's experience and perspective, to almost vicariously share in his or her perspective to understand it thoroughly. It's about understanding their thoughts and feelings.

But healthy empathy does not require you to agree with the position of another person, in matters of opinion. When I empathize, I can understand exactly where you're coming from and why you feel a certain way, and completely validate what you're experiencing, while also maintaining my ability to be true to myself, my ideals, and my responsibilities as a leader.

Friedman also provided an interesting distinction between hurt and harm, in matters of leadership interactions. He says that fair and effective leadership may sometimes result in hurt feelings. We're not going to like every decision the leader makes. And that our hurts are often an opportunity to grow emotionally through the experience. He would say that progress will demand some hurts along the way.

But harm crosses moral or ethical boundaries. Leaders should do no harm. They should be expected to act in ways that are honest, caring, selfless, and upright. 

The confusion I've noticed is that often when someone feels hurt, there is a belief that the individual or the organization has harmed them. But these are two different things.

What do you think? Is it possible to have too much empathy? What are your thoughts on keeping healthy boundaries while also showing empathy to others? Share a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.
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