003: Stepping Back and Taking Stock

A common theme seemed to emerge this week while both at work and home.  Other people and situations seemed to be negatively impacting either myself, or a few of my colleagues.  I say seemed because when first facing difficult issues, it always appears to come from outside us.

  • “I was called into a meeting with the Head Teacher, and he wasn’t pleased with my recent performance.”
  • “My colleagues seem to have it out for me.  They keep going around me to complain about how I’ve done something.”
  • “My wife has a short temper and always gets mad at me about little things.”
  • “One of my students will not engage with lessons no matter what I do to support them to increase their interest.”

When faced with difficult moments, our first reaction tends to be that it’s outside me and I don’t know what to do about it.  If we continue to think like this, the initial problem can build and build as we create a story around it.  That one meeting with the Head Teacher can turn into a kick in the gut feeling that you are a complete failure.  That one heated conversation with your spouse can turn into a volcano of emotion that pushes you to resent the person whom you love.  What we must recognise is that regardless of the problem, it’s our choice how we react to it.

regardless of the problem, it’s our choice how we react to it

I feel the best way around this, although not easy by any standard, is two-fold.  Here I’ll give you two steps I’ve come across during my years of teaching that focus on understanding any problem before you, and how to consider said problem tactfully.

Step 1: Covey’s Circle of Influence – Know What you can, and Cannot Change

The first step isn’t a drastic action, per se, but it does help create space so that you can follow Step 2 with focused discipline.  Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, shared in the beginning of his book that there are things we can change, or have an effect on, and there are things we cannot change.

All the things we face in the world that has either a positive or negative effect on us is called the “Zone of Concern”.  The things we can change within that zone are called the “Zone of Influence”.  Everything outside that zone are things that may concern us, but we cannot change.  By thinking in this simple way, our brains begin to disengage with the problem in front of us so that we can look at the problem logically.

In a way, knowing we can change some things, but not all gives us permission to not fix problems immediately.

knowing we can change some things, but not all gives us permission to not fix problems immediately

Step 2: Think Like a Successful Soldier in Combat – Step Back and Take Stock

This step is the most difficult thing to do, and it takes a lot of time, but it will help over time as you practise it.  If you follow Step 1, this will help you logically consider the problem you face, which will help you become less emotional about it and more able to consider potential solutions.

Jocko Willink, former U.S. Navy Seal and author of Discipline Equals Freedom, explains it best through his recounting of training with other Navy Seals aboard an oil rig.  During the training operation, Jocko’s team became “stuck”, not knowing what to do next.  At that moment, Jocko’s perspective was forever changed.  He took a step back, surveyed the surroundings and current situation.  Jocko then gave feedback to his team which allowed them to complete the training operation successfully.

When we are faced with a difficult situation, whether it is a problem with the boss, colleagues, family, or our students, we should first take a step back and survey the situation.  This requires a lot of mental focus and discipline in order to catch ourselves before we react, but if we do take a step back we’ll begin to see the bigger picture.

When we are faced with a difficult situation, whether it is a problem with the boss, colleagues, family, or our students, we should first take a step back and survey the situation

Maybe our Head Teacher was having a bad day and he mistakenly took his frustration out on us, or maybe the Head Teacher was right and we made a mistake.  It doesn’t mean our careers are over, or that we’ll forever be the mistake we made.  Rather, by looking at the bigger picture we’ll learn to take the criticism for what it is, learn from it, and move on, ensuring we work to avoid the same mistake in the future.

Stepping back, looking at the big picture, and compartmentalising the given situation will also allow us to see the things we cannot change.  When we come across those, we just need to adjust our mindset and actions to work towards a solution.

Maybe our Student is not engaged in a lesson because something is happening at home, or on the playground, which is distracting her.  Maybe the Student is having more than usual difficulty understanding the concept being taught and needs support beyond the classroom.  We may not be able to change our students’ circumstances, but we can change how we engage and support them to reach best achievement.

Pulling Step 1 and Step 2 Together

If you didn’t read this entire post, then at least read this part.

  1. In order to get through the tough times, we must first understand that there are things we can change, and things we cannot.
  2. Next, we must disengage emotionally from the situation and try to gain a big-picture perspective.
  3. Finally, we must compartmentalise what we can change from what we cannot, then adjust and act accordingly.

I wrote this post knowing that I’m far from perfect when using these methods – just ask my wife if you meet her.  However, recognising that we get emotionally charged when negative things happen is the first step in successfully overcoming any obstacle.

Until next time!

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