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.

 

The Responsibility Vacuum

 

There are things happening in the world that I think should worry us all. Those things have been a long time coming, but their implications are potentially very alarming. In short, I fear that if movement continues in the current direction the implications could be terrible, and all that despite the fact that it should have been such a good time. So much has been happening in the world for the last 20-30 years that should be setting humanity up for a world in which there is space and time to deal with challenges like global warming and to continue in the eradication of poverty while empowering humans to take ownership and responsibility for their lives like never before.

But, where are we instead? There are certainly the warning signs that humankind is on the path at an accelerating rate towards a very dark time. Why the fear?

The pictures above are of two pages from the reading material I collected from a Covey Leadership Foundations training programme i attended around ten years ago. I had taken the materials out , as I do from time to time, to review. I find that every time i do this i find something new, can check in on my progress on issues and the commitments that I’d made to myself. These two pages leapt out at me this afternoon and I found myself wondering – if you set up many of the people being handed power in many countries of the world today, how do they stack up against these thirteen behaviours of high-trust leaders? Quite frankly, I’m not going to name the country leaders, but I can think of some who probably fail massively against every one of these thirteen  behaviours.

So, the two questions I found myself thinking about were – in a world where the people are handing power to such low-trust leaders, what does that say about the world today, and what does it suggest about where we’re going in the future? And, as an educator, I can’t help asking what the education systems have done that contributed to people who elect such low-trust leaders?

An optimist might suggest that bad leaders being raised to political high office doesn’t matter, provided there are strong, high quality leaders in other areas, particularly in business. Some would argue that so much of the real power today is now invested in business, when the market capitalisation and cashflow of many major corporations exceed the GDP of many nations. However, when we consider that many of those feckless political leaders owe their elevation to business leaders who have put them on their thrones to serve their business interests, when we see scandals like Enron or Theranos or the actions of banks and financial companies, then business leaders may not be the saviours for the future.

Further, one might say that who are the leaders in politics or business doesn’t really matter as long as people are moral and ethical within their families and their close communities. Many want to believe that their happiness and contentment in life is not dependent upon what’s happening in politics, business, the country or the world.

However, I believe that today there is a slow, dawning realisation that this ostrich thinking has created a ‘crabs in the bucket’ scenario for the vast majority of people. Information about just how daunting are the challenges facing the world from;
a) global warming and climate change,
b) increasing shift of wealth to those already most successful, leaving middle class westerners with stagnating wealth and the younger generation destined to be worse off than their parents’ generation,
c) the vulnerability of millions of jobs (and the financial security they represent) from advances in artificial intelligence and other technologies,
d) the tipping point of no return in terms of personal freedom and liberty as technology enables ‘big brother’ to destroy personal privacy (CCTV, facial recognition, elimination of cash etc.)
e) build ups of lethal, powerful weaponry in the hands of low trust world leaders.

History has shown us what can happen in such circumstances, when uncertainty and insecurity reach extremes. The vast majority of people like to believe on the way up, when life is rosy, that they’re creating their success. However, when uncertainty and insecurity start to snowball, people want to be relieved of their responsibility and accountability for their own lives. ‘Strong’ leaders who ramp up the fear of ‘others’ (anyone not like us) will happily convince them that in return for giving them power, they will be the paternal, benevolent leader who will protect them and relieve them of their responsibilities for themselves. Today, we are seeing different versions of this happening throughout the world. Whether you divide people on religious grounds, blame the ills on drug dealers and users or influx of foreigners. All amount to the same thing.

The evidence is that this is working for people in positions of power. Will it always? Perhaps the worst risks will come when those in power seek to use their positions to achieve aims and goals outside their own countries/ domains. This brings power operations in to conflict with each other eventually. Again, history suggests that the ‘little guys’ are the biggest losers from such situations.

Some readers may find this all rather negative. If there is hope, I believe it lies in this issue of trust. Because, the past also suggests that leaders don’t get to be in control and power indefinitely when their approaches are based on low trust strategies.

Recently, I heard a speaker in a blog post (sorry, I can’t remember the source) talking of responsibility as response ability – the awareness that I have the ability, the freedom, capability and the awareness to be responsible, responsive.  a person with responsibility doesn’t blame others for the state of anything, and doesn’t look for others to provide the solutions to life’s challenges.

Early in this piece I referred to the impact of education in such world experiences. In the last 30-40 years a lot has been done to expand education to a bigger and bigger proportion of the world’s population. However, so far, too many now have access to school, but not necessarily education. Much more must happen to ensure that education for the majority is built upon developing critical thinking skills, empathy and emotional intelligence and a generation of young people who genuinely embrace their right and duty to take full and complete responsibility for their own lives. On Friday we saw the biggest demonstrations yet across the world from young people striking from school to take to the streets to demand action on human impact on global warming. This is encouraging. We are seeing first signs of young people in the US turning against the politicians on the issues of gun control after the awful pattern of shootings in schools which cannot be rationalised away by thinking, educated people.

So, there is hope, and educators must understand the role that they have to play.

 

Tenby Educators – Academic Year End

Dear Tenby Educators
Following on from my end of term letter to you all, I promised you some more information here!
As educators who espouse the virtues of ‘lifelong learning’, it is vitally important that we too make lifelong learning a natural part of our day to day life. As educators, we are in a unique position to model the values of the school for our children.
I also happen to believe that this value of ‘lifelong learning’ is a win-win for all of us – growing feels positive, learning is enriching. I also believe that educators share knowledge, so for me that’s the biggest reason why this blog exists.
Vacation time is important for us to recharge our batteries, to reflect on our professional practice and to set goals for ourselves that motivate, inspire and excite. I believe humans are a bit like bicycles – we’re at our best when moving forward and standing still really does us no good at all.
I take this opportunity to share with you my personal selection of great reading, perfect for vacation.

1. Mindset, Carol Dweck
This is a book I’ve been very fond of recommending to both colleagues and parents, ever since I read it for the first time. I believe it deserves to be right up at the top of the reading list. Carol Dweck is a professor at Stanford University. Her book explores, through research findings the impact of the Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset. The starting premise is a simple one, but as the book highlights the implications are massive. Educators and parents who are not aware of the findings in this book can be inadvertently reinforcing fixed mindset that can blight the lives of children as it infects their beliefs about academic abilities, propensity and skill in learning, creativity, sports and physical skills and abilities.
If you choose to read only one of the books on this list, this is the one I recommend.

2. Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar
A small slim book, but one of of my favourite books. The book is a bi-product of Tal’s course that he used to teach at Harvard – the most popular and most attended course there. Yes, indeed, the young under and post-grads of Harvard are smart enough to realise that they can have all the skills, intelligence and ability to get in to one of the world’s great academic institutes, they might be destined for great professional success – but, none of that guarantees them happiness in life. Tal is a part of the ‘Positive Psychology’ movement that is applying the rigour of academic research and thinking to what might previously have been strictly the domain of the self-help movement.
Very thought provoking and well worth exploring.

3. Flow or Finding Flow, both by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
I’ve read both of these books twice, and took something new away each time. Both are fascinating and well written books about how to ‘get in the groove’ so that tasks don’t feel like tasks and we get more done of what we need to do to achieve our goals and aspirations.
These have occasionally provoked some really interesting conversations with students about how to create meaning and purpose in mundane tasks. I talked about how when I had menial manual jobs as a youngster I would set myself targets related to how quickly I might complete a task, how accurately, estimating various aspects and then seeing how close I could get to those estimates. As I did this I found time on task flew by, I avoided boredom, got the job done and felt satisfaction afterwards.

4. Linchpin by Seth Godin
In a changing world, everyone needs to pay careful attention to how they ‘make meaning’ in the world, carve out a niche for themselves and do work that is engaging to them.
On my first reading of this book I found so much that was significant both for us as adults and for children in school, being prepared for life.
In short – it’s about how people make themselves indispensable (and that includes reading and learning!)

5. Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen
A Harvard Business School professor who has built his reputation on work about how technology does so much more than just lead to incremental changes in any industry, turned his attention to how technology can radically disrupt the field of education.

6. Schools That Learn by Peter Senge
This certainly wins the prize on this list for the biggest and heaviest of the books – maybe a bit too heavy for your hand luggage if travelling. Peter Senge is one of the world’s leading authorities on Systems Thinking. In this book he turned his attention to schools, education and parents. There is an accompanying website that provides more information:
http://www.schoolsthatlearn.com

7. Good to Great by Jim Collins
One of a series of books that looks at companies and organisations from various fields, exploring how they get beyond just merely being good companies or organisations, but become outstanding – and, maybe more important, sustain it.

8. The Leader Within by Stephen Covey
Most people know Covey for the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (and subsequently, the Eighth Habit). In this book he translates the habits in to a set of principles that can be used to create a school culture, following through in some detail some of the first schools in the USA that did so.

9. The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson
The man best known for his groundbreaking TED talk that challenged some of what he perceived as wrong in education today. It’s the most watched TED talk ever and has been the inspiration for many educators to bring meaningful change to schools and their teaching.

10. Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, or
Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
A somewhat controversial and provocative, New York based educator who has published many books setting out well-reasoned arguments that challenge some fashionable and accepted orthodoxies when it comes to teaching, schools and parenting. Reading Alfie Kohn’s work leads us to start to question things we may have taken for granted in many ways about children.

Bonuses:

11. Drive, Daniel Pink
As a long time reader of Pink’s books and his blog this book had been on my ‘to be read’ list for quite some time. It’s a fascinating exploration of human motivation. It’s relevant for us to understand our motivation as adults, but also to understand children’s motivation to learn.

12. Giving Voice to Values, Mary C Gentile
I originally received this book as a gift from a professional colleague. Ms Gentile is a professor of Babson College, USA and the book explores the issues of finding courage to lead through values and inspire others. It explores how values can be the driving force for an organisation and for leadership.

Inspiring Leaders

Want to take in a few new ideas on leadership? Looking for inspiration or ways to raise your game to the next level?

Here’s a pretty good list of the 30 leadership writers who are currently considered to be most inspiring and having the biggest impact in the world:

Global Gurus – World’s Top 30 Leadership Professionals for 2016

I’m not sure I wholly agree with the list. For example, I think Robin Sharma a bit too ‘light weight’ to be taken seriously in this company whilst Dr Stephen Covey is still having a massive impact, even after his death, as is Peter Drucker. I also don’t agree with the suggestion that Tom Peters and Jim Collins are mainly only known about in America.

Nevertheless, a good starting point list for anyone looking for ideas.

Stephen Covey on Lifelong Learning

http://www.12manage.com/video.asp?TB=covey_seven_habits&S=8&RS=vn&AC=up&EM=markp.india@gmail.com

Those of us in education will know when we’ve really made a difference – when people like Dr Stephen Covey no longer have to make such statements to adults.

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Another Book List

More high quality reading – another great list of business books to enhance personal and professional growth.

Agenda – 30 Business Books Every Professional Should Read Before turning 30

I might be a little past that age right now, but I still think there’s a lot of quality in this list. Personally, I’ve read 13 out of the list so far and have a further 9 of them on my ‘To Read’ list.

Habits – Who’s In Charge?

Many writers and trainers over the years have rightly focused upon habits as a key determinant of success in a person’s life. Of course, Dr Stephen Covey put great emphasis on this in his work with his ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ and subsequent works.

So, I was very interested when I came across this Fast Company article recently;

Fast Company – How to Make Long-Lasting Changes to Your Unconscious Habits

The first thing that struck me was the way that these consultants were working with companies to deal with employee habits at both the individual and collective level. When I thought about it, this made a great deal of sense when you think about the way certain workplace habits become norms passed down between employees without real conscious thought about how well they serve the organisation.

Then, there’s that extraordinary statistic – 40-50% of all that we do in a day is made up of habits – but we just don’t know it! Too often we’re following habits unconsciously, so they are leading us, rather than the other way around. To my mind, the most important act if we want to change our habits or to be master over them is to become consciously aware and questioning about our habits.

We can’t tackle them all, and wouldn’t want to. If you brought every daily habit in to conscious thought, firstly you’d be in significant conscious overload, but secondly, you’d probably disturb and upset lots of very positive habits that serve you very well in getting through the day.

Much to ponder on here.

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