I’m Right, You’re a #@!*

Angry argument

A few weeks ago I was watching a Youtube video by an American who purports to give financial and business advice. I was shocked when, at one point, he said something I considered to be blatantly racist towards the people of another country. I simply wrote in the comments section – “Wasn’t that a rather racist thing to say?”

I went to bed and thought no more about it.  In the morning I saw a notification that there was a comment in response to mine. When I opened it, I was informed – “This is the internet, get over it you @#!*.”

It can appear very easily today that, hastened by online ‘anything goes’ communication, we are losing our ability to hold conversations or discuss matters where we hold different points of view. We don’t know how to argue any more. It has become the habit all too often to take comments that are critical of a point of view or an action to be statements of direct attack on one’s person and therefore justification for insults and direct attacks on the person of the other, regardless of whether we even know anything about that person.

Particularly in my earlier years in leadership positions I well remember that I used to have a real issue at times. I would put in extensive hours of research on a topic, consult with experts and other leadership team members, apply long and deep thought and often write long and detailed plans of action and other documents. Then it would come time to present the materials as a plan for action in a particular new direction to staff, or school parents. I would also burn a lot of midnight oil turning those ideas and plans in to powerpoint presentations and speaking notes, planning how I could accurately convey all the facts and details to the target audience.

And then, I’d present! And then, I’d get a shock when the audience reaction and response wasn’t the one I’d wanted or convinced myself to expect. Having a lot personally invested in those thoughts and ideas I would sometimes feel angry, disappointed, let down, even betrayed. I would lament, sometimes to myself and sometimes to close others how these people, who hadn’t spent all the time and effort I had, who didn’t have all the facts marshalled the way I had, could be so foolish as to not be grateful and appreciative that I had put in all the hard work on their behalf. As far as I was concerned, my facts and evidence were irrefutable, well organised and well presented and so, if those people were rejecting there had to be something wrong with them deep down. I would be tempted to put it down to character flaws or ulterior motives. I questioned whether they were really sincere in their protestations of loyalty to the vision and mission of the organisation.

There was an inevitability that the end outcome of such an exchange was tense relations, loss of rapport and less trust in both directions. When relationships are damaged in this way, the next communication can only be harder still because it starts from a position of mistrust. The other thing that people come to realise about such exchanges is the enormous loss of energy, drive and enthusiasm, for which both are again inclined to blame the lack of reasonableness of the opponent. Hostility levels can continue to rise, or one or both parties withdraw whilst adamant they were always 100% in the right and that the other party is entirely to blame for any harm done to the relationships.

We can see parallels today in the arguments roiling around in India about recent law changes pushed through by a government emboldened by its majority after recent elections.  We also see similar with the arguments about Donald Trump in the US or Brexit in the UK. In each of these disagreements both sides put enormous energy in to marshalling facts, data, ‘evidence’ to put the case that they are 100% right, their opponents 100% wrong.  But, in all these disputes people are going further, with two disturbing factors;

1. Both sides in these polarised arguments take their sides according to the party that they already support. In other words, if I align with a party on the right in my country’s politics, then I agree and push the agenda of every policy or argument from my peers on the right, without exception. it has become anathema almost to say that whilst I align with ‘this side’ I cannot agree with X, or am uncomfortable with Y without certain safeguards etc.
Instead it’s  – I’m on this side and therefore I think X, Y and Z and will argue for them until my last breath. Further I will belittle and condemn anyone foolish enough to align themselves with any other position or to listen to any ‘facts that might question my/ our perspective. People like us think things like this, support people like us and condemn people like them!
This is made worse by another factor online, namely that the algorithms being used by search companies etc mean that to keep me ‘hooked’ (to keep the promises to the advertisers) I will be fed a diet largely consisting of the viewpoints and perspectives that reinforce my belief in X, Y and Z. This convinces me that I am ‘one of the smart ones’ and further cements my view that all those who disagree are either willfully obstructing the truth or ignorant in the extreme.

2. Having presented their ‘facts’ in great and careful detail, when their opponents offer any alternative facts there’s a lack of listening, an unwillingness to contemplate that the ‘other side’ could have anything worth saying. Further, when they don’t accept ‘our facts’, not only do we alienate ourselves from them, but resort to name calling, personal level insults and assumptions that they are unreasonable, blinkered and

Such complexities and subtleties of human relations are never perfected in an entire lifetime. Nevertheless, it is vitally important that people are committed to learn and to put in the effort to strive to be better, in order to further better human relations at both the personal and the larger scale. I fear that we are at risk of argument fatigue and the changes brought by the relative anonymity and safety of distance and ease provided by the internet may see humanity go backwards in its development of these skills.

For children growing up today there are massive risks. When we were young we spent far more of our time playing, often in  fairly large groups, with a lot of independence. Disagreements were an inevitable part of that play, but we independently learned how to work through issues, negotiate over differences of opinion and to separate feelings and emotions at times so as to understand circumstances.

Today’s children live far more isolated lives. When they do interact it’s within the environments of computer games and social networking – and as I’ve already said these domains tend not to observe the same standards or expectations. In the real world, when you’ve insulted someone, called them vulgar names or inflicted pain and hurt by needling them at points of sensitivity, you still have to look them in the eye and also look other peers in the eye who will have seen and heard your actions (and will share judgements about you). Online, a level of callousness and ‘out of the world’ sense can mean that bad behaviour, being unfair or nasty carries little by way of real world consequences.

In such circumstances, we have to fear further deterioration in people’s abilities to disagree, let alone considering the ability to handle cognitive dissonance. This is the discomfort that may be experienced by a person who holds two opposing views in mind at the same time. On this, the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald is famously quoted as saying, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” By this definition, there are evidently few first rate intelligences around today, and there will be even less in the future.

In these circumstances there is a genuine need to ensure that thinking and communication skills form a significant part of the learning process in schools. ‘Facts’ are readily and easily available. The ability to marshal an argument that makes sense, to argue it effectively with others and to engage with their responses involve a set of skills that are well worth developing.

Further, even as adults, we have to acknowledge that these are areas in which we can never get too good. There is always scope for improvement. I outlined earlier the issues and challenges I had as an, at times, obsessive leader. I recognise now that it made me less of a leader than i could have been. I know I will still have times when my vision for something, backed by my own passion for it and the fact that I’ve invested the time and effort to become passionate is not uniformally welcomed by others, needs to be sold and cannot simply be bulldozered. and that even despite the fact that, today, there are signs that people living in an unsettled and uncertain world may welcome having leaders who bully them down a particular course of action. Leaders with the ‘courage (thick-skinned-ness) to be unpopular, to bully and pressurise seem to be in vogue. I want to believe that this is just a phase the world is going through and that ultimately it will still always value, respect and want more to be lead by those who seek to carry others with them rather than exert bullying force and power.

If you believe that man-made impact on global warming is a bogus sham created by interested parties, or that the earth is actually flat nothing is achieved if I simply come to you and tell you that you’re wrong. Even if I follow up with a vast array of scientific evidence (facts) to put my argument and refute yours, there will still be nothing achieved. In fact, worse, we’ve seen lots of evidence that this will simply cause your belief to become even more entrenched and you are very likely to double down on your beliefs and the perception that those who seek to persuade you otherwise are bad in some way.

So, we come to the question – how can we argue, disagree and communicate more effectively, so that we arrive at ways forward that are more humane, sensitive and actually effective? So that we don’t sacrifice long term relationships in order to achieve short term wins. What are the elements of effective discourse to be built in to the education process and school learning so that young people can master these skills and make them a natural part of their character?

Here are a couple of useful starting points I would like to share – ones that struck me as particularly useful and appropriate.

The first is a link from Psychology Today that looks at why we shouldn’t try to shut down argument, that it serves a valuable purpose if we will just keep it in perspective, avoid getting emotionally overloaded by it and approach it as a vital part of the long term process of making our personal relationships stronger and more effective:

Psychology Today – The proper way to Argue

The second is a longer read, but well worthwhile. It comes from Eric Barker, the writer of the ‘Barking Up The Wrong Tree’ blog and the book of the same name that came out last year. The book is superb and I would thoroughly recommend it – one of my best reads of 2019. Eric’s method is to draw significant amounts of research together from credible sources to address a challenge at which, if we can get better, we can have more success in life.

In this particular article he addresses the question of how one might persuade another to change their viewpoint or opinion on something. He starts with the most fundamental point – you’re going to have little or no scope to change a person’s mind by restraining, forcing, bullying, hectoring or belittling the other person. You cannot begin to have any chance of convincing anyone of anything until there is rapport and a feeling on the part of the other that you do not wish them ill or intend harm to them. He advocates kindness.

I have a sneaking suspicion that, all too often, these days when people engage in aggressive arguments, especially online, they know right from the start that they will not change the point of view of the other. Rather, they actually intend that by sanctimoniously professing their viewpoint and belittling those of the other, they will feel better about themselves. This is a small victory of little consequence and comes with a heavy price in terms of the loss of civility, decency and effective human engagement. When lawyers in court refer to the opposing lawyer as “my learned friend,” it highlights that they are setting out to journey together towards a shared, common, understood truth (win-win) rather than in an adversarial, gladiatorial battle to the death (win-lose) .

Barker’s article goes on with some level of detail, to outline a number of the key ways that rapport can be established and that one can attempt to persuade another to change a viewpoint (in fact, to create an environment where they persuade themselves that there is some reason to doubt their earlier beliefs).

Barking Up The Wrong Tree Blog – Eric Barker – This Is How to Change Someone’s Mind
(Click on the link above to open the blog post in a separate window or tab. While you’re there I would thoroughly recommend you sign up for Eric’s regular email notification of new blog posts (about once a week) to read more)

For a final thought, I turn to Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey didn’t invent these 7 habits, rather he distilled them from long term wisdom about what works – what is effective. Firstly, we can take habit 2 – begin with the end in mind. Unless your intention is really to alienate others and cause them to hold beliefs with which you can’t agree more firmly than before, you need a change of strategy. if you always do what you always did, then you’ll always get what you always got. Just winding people up for the sake of it online really does make you nothing more than a keyboard warrior and you shouldn’t be surprised when people ignore you. If you have other objectives, you need to get clear about what they are.

Then, we can turn to habit 5 – seek first to understand, and then to be understood. You’re not the only perfectly reasonable, sane, intelligent person on earth. Just because it may not be obvious to you, there is a reason why the other person thinks or believes what they do. And, as Barker highlights, those beliefs are frequently wrapped up with self image, identity and values. If and when you have an understanding of why they hold the beliefs they do, then you might be able to begin to introduce alternative viewpoints to them.

As I said earlier, I’m still working on these things and know I’ll never be perfect. You cannot be too good. However, as a person who wants to make a positive contribution in the world I know I must continue to refine and develop my skills. The effort is worthwhile, however long the journey. There will be better and worse days, but that’s all part of the road towards mastery.

 

Teacher Classroom Language

blackboard-1299841_1280

In my experience, the vast majority of teachers want to be the very best they can be in their roles and to reach every student to the best of their ability. In my experience, as a result, teachers spend lots of time exploring their subject and ideas on the best teaching methodologies in relation to the content of that subject. They pay lots of attention to classroom management, maybe also to child psychology, how to motivate students, effects of discipline methods and pedagogy.

But, in my experience, not much time or attention goes in to aspects related to the teacher as a communicator. To my mind this is a major shortcoming when we consider that teaching is so dependent upon communication, consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes there is attention paid to the language of the subject, to aspects of correctness of use of the language that is the medium of instruction (e.g. English, especially when not the mother tongue of the teachers or students). However, not much professional development training goes in to aspects of body language, use of semiotics (use of signs and symbols), use of voice or how language is used.

In NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) there is a well known pre supposition that states – “You cannot not communicate.” In other words, we’re all communicating, all the time. Even not communicating communicates. We’ve all seen that a teacher can often get a much quicker response from an unruly, noisy or excitable class of pupils by standing silently with a particular facial expression than by shouting, remonstrating, cajoling or even threatening.

Teachers want to impact students when they communicate with them. I remember years ago (I think the first time was when undergoing sales training) learning that when we communicate our impact is made up of:

  • 55% what we do with our body, physically (including the face)
  • 38% what we do with our voice (tone, speed, volume, timbre etc)
  • 7% the words we use

Seeing these figures it would be easy to make the mistake of thinking that as a result words don’t really matter very much. They’re not very significant. However, I believe this is a very grave mistake, especially when we take in to account that whilst using the right words we also have the opportunity to use our voice in the most effective ways for a combined 45% of the total impact.

So, for many teachers there’s an area here where they can bring about significant and valuable improvements, if they pay attention. However, one of the biggest challenges with language and communication is that most of what we do and say is automatic and unconscious. In order to question and challenge our own communication we have to bring it in to conscious awareness. This isn’t always a comfortable process, but i believe the benefits make it worthwhile.

The ASCD (the biggest US organisation for teacher and educator professional development) holds periodic webinars. Some of these are exclusively for members. However, today I want to share information on an excellent webinar that is free for all to see – you don’t need to be a member to log in to watch the replay of this one.

Mike Anderson is a US elementary teacher who has published a few books. I read his earlier book, “Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn” which was very good. This webinar was to introduce the core ideas behind his latest book, “What we say and how we say it matter: teacher talk that improves student learning and behavior.”

In the webinar he shares masses of really good material and I’m sure teachers will benefit from giving this a little time. To watch the replay of the webinar, click on the link below. When the page opens, click where it says “Watch now”.

ASCD – Professional Development – What We Say – Webinar

Enjoy, and please share your feedback and thoughts on the content here.

 

Why Do I Lead?

Why Do I Lead?

This is probably the single most important question that a school principal must ask themselves – and keep asking themselves. When the answers come back with clarity, then all is pointing in the right direction. When the answers are harder to come by, that’s when the leader needs to look inside to discover what’s out of alignment.

Questions are powerful and educators have long known this. Teachers spend a lot of time asking questions. Modern, effective teachers spend more time helping children to ask great questions, having recognised that this leads to greater quality learning. Likewise, the best school leaders know that asking themselves the right, best questions and reflecting on the answers is a key part of achieving and being successful.

So, this is why I’ve added a new book to my ‘To Read’ list. It’s a new book out through ASCD, from a New Jersey, USA school leader named Baruti Kafele entitled, “The Principal 50:Critical Leadership Questions For Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence”

Here’s a page that carries a brief overview about the book, a short video presentation by the author, and five visuals of the basic 50 questions which are elaborated on in the book. Personally, I don’t intend to wait to get and read the book, but intend to start challenging myself to reflect on some of these questions as I move forward in the coming weeks.

ASCD – Book Overview – The Principal 50

Already, as I studied the 50 questions, the strongest thought running through my mind is that as critical as reflection on the questions is, they are really worth very little and will bring scant benefits within schools unless they are followed up with time committed to communication with others and action. Without performance and action, these questions would be largely a self indulgent exercise in navel gazing.

If I Could Just …………..

‘Time Management’ has been around a long time. For almost as long, there have been people quite ready to point out that you can’t manage time – it just is. Instead, what we’re really about is the somewhat harder challenge of managing ourselves and our minds. The holy grail is ‘productivity.’

The abiding thought is always, “If I could just, ….. ” then I could achieve more, be more, succeed more, contribute more etc. The second thought that soon follows is a conviction that others are doing more, achieving more, succeeding more and I really ought to be doing so as well. And so, the rat race is perpetuated.

In the end, my view is that indeed we can’t manage time, but can get better at managing ourselves if we keep some focus on it, practice honest reflection about what we do with our time and whether we could be more effective and keep our big goals at the forefront to determine how wee should be spending our time. The latter point is vital if we are to spend enough time on things which are important, but perhaps not urgent.

The tougher part is that if we’re to make real progress, part of the solution lies in better management of other people. The richer/ higher title/ higher status of an individual enables the person to have much more power over how they use and allocate their time. The more others are determining what is important for us to do and the more others have the right to impose upon us what they perceive to be ‘urgent’, then the less we can really impact the effectiveness of how we allocate our time. It’s not altogether fair when writers and commentators hold up people like Richard Branson, Bill Gates or Elon Musk as examples of people who are able to achieve so much out of the same 24 hours a day available to us all.

Many organisations have instigated practices over the last 10-20 years that may have been right from a communication and collaboration perspective, but were really quite undesirable from a personal efficiency/ productivity perspective. Open offices, open doors etc. may mean that people have more access to each other, but it plays havoc with productivity. Worse, in my experience in different types of organisations, when some are imposing their time agenda on others, it’s not even particularly about work, meaningful quality communication or collaboration, but just some employees seeking company/ companionship. However, all the data on the impact of interruptions is pretty damning. Haven’t we all had those occasions when we were really in flow on some complex and involved task, got interrupted and spent the rest of the day anxiously aware that some of our best ideas we were holding in our heads whilst doing that task have been lost for good – they’re not coming back!

Here’s a Fast Company article to spark a few more ideas. it looks at seven myths that are commonly bandied around on the subject of time management, with suggestions for better ways of thinking;

Fast Company – 7 Popular Productivity Beliefs You Should Ignore

Stepping in to Another’s Shoes

98% of us have the mental ‘hard wiring’ to be empathic. So, the question becomes; Why have empathy levels been falling and what will need to happen to reverse the decline?

Here’s a great TedX presentation on the need for an empathy revolution, from Roman Krznaric;

The Power of Communication

Martin Pistorius, an extraordinary man who spent 13 years locked inside his body, in a coma and unable to communicate with anyone around him. This is a fascinating and powerful presentation he gave to a TedX event. An amazing show of human resilience and spirit.

Parents – Vital Education Partners

When I first moved in to school leadership it was before I experienced dealing with schools as a parent. I was shocked, at least in India, to see the frequency with which schools treated parents with little more than disdain. Parents joked about it, but the jokes were barbed with truth that hurt. Once the school had got the child admitted, parents were treated so often as though they were a hindrance and a nuisance. They were also often treated as if they knew nothing, understood nothing and should just accept as gospel whatever the school did or said.

I was looking at these things from the perspective of a former Private Banker. What’s more, our bank had been phenomenally successful by putting the client at the centre of all we did. A large part of meetings were spent talking about clients, much training was around clients and all staff were aware that communication and engagement with clients was always the most important priority. Being passionate about service to clients was job number one.

Once I got over my initial shock I came to see more and more WHY so many schools wanted to shut the parents out. So many educators sought to dress up what they did in their schools with a degree of mystique, whilst the reality was there was little magical or even very modern about what went on. In other cases it was simply that schools wanted to adopt the path of least effort, a form of laziness that wanted to simply deliver lessons, prepare children for exams by traditional and conventional methods (but take much higher fees than in the past on the basis of fancier premises and facilities!)

The result of all this has been that in any school I’ve lead I’ve always wanted to put strong emphasis on parent engagement. As time’s gone on, technology has enabled us to really enhance this. So, whether it’s stressing on really good quality written textual reports on children’s assessment and performance, this blog, parent workshops, parent orientations, the way school phones get answered or a multitude of other things, it’s always been my mission to bring the partner on board as a partner.

There’s another analogy from my banking days. Often clients were elderly and widows. I always made a particular point of giving them extra time in the early stages to help them to understand, in simple layman terms, what we did and how we did it. Some told me that they found this refreshing and respectful as peopl;e were often inclined to pass them off as silly old ladies who understood nothing. However, it also paid off as a couple told me that they rebuffed attempts to lure them away on the basis that nobody else would help them to understand in the same way. Again, I’ve taken a similar approach in education. As educators we don’t have the right to treat parents as outsiders, to wrap what we do in a cloak of jargon and mystery language so as to shut them out. I believe it’s vitally important that we open up the learning process in a transparent manner for the parent so that they can really understand what we’re doing, how and why.

In my experience, one of the times when all of this communication pays off is when/ if something goes wrong with the child – whether it be an issue of academic struggle, interpersonal or disciplinary issues. The time invested means that school and parents can meet from a position of high trust.

Keeping all this in mind, I was interested to read this article on the subject of parent engagement and communication from Education Week. It is the first of five pieces, so I’ll be interested to see the follow-ups;

Education Week – Keep Students Close, Parents Closer