Left to Their Own Devices, People Will Not Get Along

Somehow I got elected to Church Council. After agreeing to serve on the Nominating Committee, I was told people thought I’d be perfect for Council. Damn, upsold by my own church. There should be a law.

“Okay,” I said in a weak moment, “As long as everyone knows going in that I’m skeptical of a lot that people accept as the status quo.” “That’s great, that’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

Add that to the Good Shepherd Lutheran things of which I’m skeptical. In large part because at the first (monthly) meeting in early June there was no opportunity to pose questions let alone offer alternative viewpoints about anything of substance. It was, in essence, a long business meeting.

Even more concerning than that though was how the meeting began—with quick approval of the previous minutes and summary reports from some subcommittees. I only knew half the people, and even the less introverted* didn’t know everyone, still there were no introductions, not even names. In 36 meetings over the next three years** we’re going to have to work together to make some difficult decisions on behalf of the larger community. Like a farmer mindlessly heaving seeds on the ground, the working assumption seems to be that everything will be okay because everyone will get along fine. Like that’s the natural order of things.

I know the opposite to be true because I’ve worked in an intensely interpersonal field for three decades and The Good Wife served on Council during a particularly tumultuous time in the church’s recent past. When two people or organizations with two hundred plus people do not build in mechanisms for preventive problem solving and the cultivating of mutual respect, dissension will be the default. Family members won’t speak, married couples will divorce, work teams will fragment, and antipathy will rule the day.

So I wrote the Council President and tactfully suggested that if we don’t have time for any team building, we at least introduce ourselves at the start of tomorrow night’s meeting. He said it was a good idea and then asked if I’d lead a 15-20 minute team building activity, which translates into 1m per person after this planned intro:

One thing I’ve learned as an educator who emphasizes small group cooperating learning is that when it comes to effectively teaming with others in families, in schools, in the workforce, or in other contexts like church councils, many adults have more negative than positive frames of reference. Put differently, when they think about all the teams they’ve been a part of, it’s easier for them to identify what went wrong with them than it is to explain what went right. That’s because we’re not nearly intentional enough about the ultimate litmus test of a team’s effectiveness, which is whether the sum is greater than the individual parts. Meaning, at the end of the team’s time together, do the individual members have a sense that by themselves they never could’ve accomplished anything close to what the team did.

Then I’m going to ask them to think for a minute about a positive team experience, where the team they were a part of clearly accomplished more than they would have left to their own devices. And then to briefly summarize one thing that contributed to the team’s success.

How would you answer that? How easy or difficult was it to come up with a list of positive team experiences? And the single most positive team experience? And the key take-away that partially explains the team’s success?

In thinking about what I’m going to contribute I thought of a five faculty Guilford College team I worked on in the mid 1990s to help the college redesign it’s general education program. I was the junior faculty representative and was blown away by my older colleagues smarts and interpersonal savvy. I had fun riding their coattails as we lead the 100 person faculty through the difficult process of updating the college’s course requirements***.

Then I thought of the cycling team I am a part of most Tuesday and Thursday nights. Or take Saturday’s 94-miler around Capitol Forest. Left to my own devices I would’ve averaged 18mph not the 20mph that five of us managed. But aerodynamics are more physical than interpersonal, so I kept exploring the hidden recesses of my pea brain.

Eventually, my positive team experience that most clearly embodies the “sum being greater than the individual parts” bubbled up. “Team Lynn and Ron Byrnes” whose primary project the last 25 years has been to raise two children, now young adults. In all honesty, a quarter of the time I wish The Gal Pal was more like me, meaning a quarter of the time her differences drive me cray cray. Three-fourths of the time though I know for a fact that we parented much better together than I ever could’ve myself. Her different ways of thinking and being made us way more thoughtful as we did our best to find our way absent any Parenting Manual.

Sometimes we’ve been more intentional about teaming effectively than others. When we don’t schedule time to talk and purposely work through simmering resentments, both of us end up racing to have OUR feelings understood, which is another way of saying we argue. When we’re intentional, meaning we take turns listening to, and empathizing with one another, we’re a pretty darn good team as I hope our daughters would attest.

Tuesday is the second Council meeting, but also Lynn’s and my thirtieth anniversary. I’m not just a better parent, but a way better person because of her. I look forward to teaming with her for as long as possible.

* Since I’ve kept a really low profile at church, I agreed to serve in large part to get to know a few people better. The thinking being that I’ll like it more if I have more friends.

** After five of us were elected together, we learned that to create a proper balance of term lengths, only four of us would be able to serve the whole three years. In my first act of amazing selflessness, I kinda quickly volunteered to serve only two years.

*** The one exception to the fun being when one of my noon basketball acquaintances, a Religion professor in desperate need of mindfulness training, lit into me for something our group had proposed. If memory serves me correctly, I felt better after dunking over him during that day’s pickup game.

Addendum: Turns out some regular readers of the humble blog are questioning my dunking ability. Calling it fake news.


Developing In-depth, Intimate Friendships

Who knew there’s something really nice about driving to swim meets way out on the Kitsap Peninsula. Or more specifically, driving home from them.

Four years ago, following the South Kitsap meet, Nineteen and I started out listening to National Public Radio, and then as the sun set on Commencement Bay and the Narrows Bridge, talked about the world, her world, our worlds. Not a top-down father-daughter talk, a balanced adult one.

Last week, as Sixteen’s (S’s) passenger, I was in the right place at the right time for another thoughtful and memorable conversation. I mostly listened as she described a moving letter she had received earlier in the day from a close friend who struggled with anxiety last year. The friend wanted S to know how important her help had been and how much her understanding presence meant to her. Her other friends, she explained, ran a little hot and cold, which made her especially appreciative of S’s consistent care.

“What I like about A.F. is she’s vulnerable,” S reflected while hugging the right line of the two lane highway. “She’s not afraid to admit everything’s not all right. That gives me the opportunity to help.” She explained how good it felt to help her friends, to share insights from the serious difficulties she experienced as a middle schooler. It gives purpose to that especially challenging chapter of her life.

S’s story reminded me of two important steps in developing in-depth, intimate friendships—admitting one’s vulnerabilities and humbly asking for help.

Taken together, sometimes saying, “I’m afraid. I’m anxious. I’m lost. I’m stuck. Can you help me?”

Knowing that doesn’t mean I do it well. I don’t. At all. I probably inherited my stubborn, sometimes self-defeating self-sufficiency from my parents who grew up in barren eastern Montana on the heels of the Depression.

Paradoxically, I enjoy helping my friends whenever they ask for help, but I don’t like inconveniencing them. At all. A tip of the iceberg example. I spent twenty minutes in the garage last week unsuccessfully trying to tighten a bolt, while holding a washer, and screw in a very awkward position because I didn’t want to inconvenience the wife. Finally threw in the towel, asked for her help in applying pressure to the top of the screw, and had everything assembled in less than a minute.

More significantly, I’m almost always resistant to counseling, yet the few times I’ve committed to it, it’s proven helpful.

Obviously, everyone has to be somewhat self-sufficient, but there’s a point of diminishing returns, a point I cross fairly regularly. I’m not sure how to explain my stubborn, sometimes self-defeating self-sufficiency. It’s irrational. If I could throw a “start depending upon others more on occasion” switch, I would have already.

I’d ask you for help, but I don’t want to inconvenience you.

Maybe I’ll just groove some more to Bill Withers in the hope it’ll eventually sink it.

Thanks S for the inspiration.

Can Individuals Learn to Be People Smart?

Can beginning teachers learn to interact with their co-workers, students, and students’ families more successfully? Can they improve their interpersonal skills? Can they learn to listen, to empathize, to communicate more clearly, to use humor appropriately, to caringly discipline, and in the end, to competently direct student learning? Can individuals more generally learn to be “people smart”?

Yes, to a degree, I think.

My hesitation in part is a result of working with a teacher in training a few years ago. His test scores and content knowledge were off the charts. His Aspergers didn’t surface until he was in the classroom with thirty-five diverse teens who couldn’t care less about his book smarts. Unable to decipher half of what was going on in the classroom, he washed out of his student-teaching internship.

State teacher credential bureaucrats require passing scores on content exams, but prospective candidates interpersonal skills aren’t evaluated at all. Granted, evaluating them in a valid and reliable manner would be tough, but no one is even trying. Instead, we just assume everyone with the requisite book smarts has sufficient people smarts.

Once teacher candidates are in credential programs, what should teacher educators and their classroom mentors do to help them strengthen their interpersonal skills? What about MBA students? What about doctor residencies? What do business and medical faculty do to help their students develop leadership and bedside manner skills? Like state teacher credential bureaucrats, most teacher educators focus far too narrowly on content. The thinking being, “If they just know enough about their content, curriculum, and assessment, they’ll be fine.”

But that’s not the case. The thoughtful and effective application of content knowledge requires well developed interpersonal skills.

One powerful case-study I use in my teaching requires students to role play an angry student, a teacher, and an upset parent. I use it to emphasize the importance of active listening. Even more important, beginning teachers need to see their mentors model active listening; use humor and communicate clearly; discipline in a firm but caring manner; be friendly, but not friends.

I recently finished reading an amazing book that I recommend: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. In one especially moving passage, Mukherjee’s describes Thomas Lynch’s otherwordly touch with patients. He writes, “I watched him resuscitate. He emphasized process over outcome and transmitted astonishing amounts of information with a touch so slight that you might not even feel it.”

Mukherjee was fortunate to learn from Lynch. Teachers in training get assigned mentors by the schools where they intern. It’s a serious structural impediment to improved teaching, a mentoring as turn-taking lottery where too many interns are assigned veterans with iffy interpersonal skills.

What about you? Whatever you deem to be your interpersonal strengths, have they always been built-in or are they the result of two steps forward, one back learning processes?

The All Important Middle School Years

For adults with children at home. If that doesn’t describe you, consider forwarding the link to a parent friend.

I’m not God’s gift to parenting, I’m sharing my story in the hope of provoking conversation and proving helpful in some small way.

As a young parent I had a hunch. My adolescence and gut told me that the quality of my daughters’ close friend decision-making would go a long ways to determining how they’d turn out as young adults. Consequently, we talked about it a lot and both daughters processed our teaching, but in very different ways.

Social scientists are finding out what many parents already know, siblings are often remarkably different one from another. In fact, they’re finding out they’re almost as different as a random sampling of children.

Our daughters’ close friend decision-making stories are illustrative of two things: 1) how different siblings often are, and 2) how true my initial hunch was that the nature of children’s close friend decision-making greatly influences who they become as young adults.

In this regard, the sixth to eighth grade time period seems especially important. Near the end of fifth grade Eighteen announced that she wanted to go to a small, independent, academically oriented middle school. “But all your friends are going to Washington Middle School.” “I’ll make new ones.” There were 32-34 people in her sixth grade class and the girls subdivided into two groups of eight or so. For some reason I can’t quite explain, Eighteen had no interest in working her way into the “cool” group. Instead, she became very good friends with other girls who were perfectly happy being the “geeks at a school for geeks”.

Individually and collectively they were unusually secure in themselves for twelve and thirteen year olds. Consequently, they unwittingly denied the “cool” group their primary leverage, elevated social status. Social status is only a competition when two or more groups willing enter into competition. Eighteen and her friends opted out of the competition altogether. It was a beautiful thing. They did well in school, they did meaningful community service, they excelled in music and athletics, they encouraged each other academically, they avoided the pitfalls of drugs and alcohol, and then they expanded their circle two and three-fold in their large, comprehensive high school. Now they’re doing well in excellent colleges across the country.

The GalPal and I could have been forgiven if we thought “This is cake.”

When Fifteen was twelve, she decided to attend small, independent, academic middle school too. Similar class size, similar subdivision of girls, totally different outcome. Fifteen wanted in the “in” group. The alpha cool student quickly picked up on this and from the get go took advantage of it by being friendly one day or week and nasty the next. The rest of the inner circle followed the alpha cool student’s lead, so socially, sixth and seventh grade was a hellish time. In an effort to try to fit in she compromised her true values and sense of self. Fortunately, she did this before the “in” group had access to drugs and alcohol.

By eighth grade, she gave up trying to be accepted by a group that she began to realize she didn’t really want to be a part of anyways. Socially, she spent most of the year alternating between making friends with seventh graders and hanging out by herself. Throughout this time, her mom and dad were impressing upon her the importance of befriending people who bring out the best in you, who make you a better person than you otherwise would be. She was tired, frustrated, sad, and very receptive to our teaching at that point.

High school has been redemptive. She has wonderful friends who share her values of doing well in school, respecting oneself and others, being physically active, and she’s healthier and happier than ever. She has a bright future.

She returned from a party the other day where she caught up with a middle school friend who attends a different high school. She learned the alpha cool student has fallen off the straight and narrow and no one from that inner circle is friends with her anymore. I feel badly for her and Fifteen probably does too. Her middle school meanness seemed rooted in insecurities that no doubt have gotten the best of her.

Post-party Fifteen reflected that she’s “so glad” she went through social hell when she did because now she has a better feel for who she is and how to choose and make close friends that share her values. Mutual friendships, friends that willingly accept one another’s quirks, friends that continuously welcome other people into their circle, friends that inspire.

That chapter of our family life was anything but cake. It was hard to watch without swooping in, but had we helicoptered in, we very likely would have shortchanged the personal discoveries and growth Fifteen experienced.

I couldn’t be more proud of her and grateful for her great leap forward.