Story and Maybe Not

Debbie Millman says that after years of offering her workshop on visual storytelling all over the world she has found that there are two main stories: of love or of loss/longing.

I have told myself and others that I am not much of a storyteller. That is both true and false. We are, as humans, all storytellers. I do not see myself as someone who relates stories well or with great relish.

A title I do claim, however, is listener. Listening is my wheelhouse and making sense of the stories people share feels like a calling.

So when a loved one I have not seen in several years takes the time to tell me parts of her story I never knew, I listen intently.

I learn about myself when I hear you tell me about yourself. My response to your story tells its own story. What you choose to share reveals another story about trust and intimacy. As I listen I become a part of your next stories.

I notice how age calls us to learn our stories by repeating them over and over. We tell the same story in different contexts to show that we know our own minds. We tell the same stories to confirm not only who we are but that we are. Often, the truth and the story do not need each other as much as we think they do.

Not every situation demands a retelling. That is a blessing.

If you listen, you may be surprised to hear which story your own voice is eager to tell.

To create a story from scratch, to build a world far from my own strikes me as by near impossible. I am grateful to the artists who manage it, who demonstrate what’s possible. I sit close and listen.

I began this post while I was still elsewhere but now I'm here, I'm back, I've returned.
Re-turn, to turn again. Where I find myself without knowing exactly what I'm looking for.
A moment passes and instantly we traffic in the past. What came before is neither news nor novelty,
it's memory - unreliable and fuzzy, a liquid relic in a leaky container.
A jumble of instances, experiences within and without, so much to remember and forget.
Re-member, to piece together again. An instinct with difficulty, this process.

I am back and I remember. I return and tell myself stories.
I am here in the now and it is already past. 
I return and pave the way to forget.

Story requires permission, right? Along the way to becoming it is subject to decision-making. The storyteller makes the rules.

What I hope you’ll hear could not be farther from my control. I release a story to the wind and its landing will always be a form of mystery. Understand: a feature, not a bug.

Author of fragments, assembler of impressions, writer/unwriter.

I’m back, I’ve returned and the exquisite dilemma of expression teases me with its dance.

White feathers displayed horizontally against black background,
image credit

The Self Who Shall Not Be Named

The other day I bumped into two colleagues who happen to be counselors. When the first greeted me with a warm hug and asked how I was, I took the risk of honesty: “I’m frustrated, tired and kind of angry.” He asked why and I shared my hard luck story about a stolen wallet and trying to get my Austrian visa replaced. The second counselor nodded, paraphrased and validated. I appreciated that moment. Thanks to my psych-savvy colleagues, I was able to vent, have my need to vent recognized, and as a result, move on.

Sometimes that kind of acceptance can happen for us in the moments when we need it most, but not always. On my good days, I try to be available for people to be honest with me – to take the time to listen carefully without trying to fix, cure or paper over the topic at hand. On my not so good days, I can usually still offer a sympathetic ear but I may be distracted by my own challenges in that moment.

Here’s what I’ve noticed: Talking about ourselves is subject to multiple sets of unspoken rules which vary widely depending on context and people involved. I think we learn this as we grow and develop a spectrum of relationships. And still we fail the exam again and again in everyday situations: at work, at home, at large. Human communication is inherently fraught it seems.

So I’m coming to terms with the phenomenon in increasingly intimate terms: The Self Who Shall Not Be Named. Here are some of the rules I will risk airing:

  • Being a woman talking about herself is likely to be understood as either vain or whining, so keep it crisp, humble and above all, brief.
  • Direct claims of exhaustion are invalid. Euphemisms like “underslept”, “not well rested,”  “feeling a little under the weather” may get me a few more minutes of air time.
  • People who believe to know me best may feel entitled to a sort of “free pass” which excuses them from having to listen too closely or empathetically because well, you know, they get it already, and this isn’t the first time, right?
  • Once in a while I may feel heard or even understood. This is often fleeting and entirely unpredictable. I savor it while I can and move on.

Good listening is hard to find. And while being a good listener may put you into contact with other strong listeners, they may not be right there when you need them. For now, recognizing and naming the phenomenon that has quietly sucked the wind out of my sails one breath at a time is already a big step.

Sometimes I am going to dare to talk about myself, my issues, my successes, my vulnerabilities with others. In some cases I will feel heard, understood and validated. In other cases, I will recognize when my voice and my story are not welcomed.

There are no great tips here for how to sidestep this pitfall because I don’t have them. If I’m angry and frustrated I want to be able to say so. Cultivating the relationships in which it is safe to do that is a lifelong pursuit, I suppose.

Damn that lifelong learning.

There Is No App for Patience

There is no app for patience. Just as there is no app for respect, kindness or trust. I say this now in the midst of all the hoopla around the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference currently taking place in Philadelphia not so much because I want to rain on anyone’s edtech parade, but because I am missing something. So much of our focus on the use of technology in education has to do with speed, efficiency and scale – measurable features. We talk about technology as an accelerator of learning, we extol the virtues of tremendous reach when tens of thousands register to join a popular Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). We laud countless applications and software packages which promise us time-saving and economizing means to teach our classes and “raise achievement” in the process. I get it. There are numerous digital tools which allow us to do things we couldn’t do before as easily such as locate, sort and store information. As individuals we can create media to share with a potential worldwide audience. And our societies are heading increasingly in the direction of more technology, of faster tools, of ubiquitous digitization of the billions of data points that make up our individual lives. I do not live under a rock. Nor do you.

Still, there is no app for patience nor will there ever be.

Patience is a human capacity to do more than wait. Patience describes the capacity to pay close enough attention, to develop the awareness of self and others to be able to recognize and evaluate when pausing, waiting, holding off will likely bring about a better, more robust and lasting outcome than not waiting in a given situation. Listening often requires patience. Cultivating anything that grows requires patience. Any learning process aimed at achieving depth demands patience. Not surprising then that patience would seem to be a prerequisite for any educational endeavor – whether teaching or learning. In our current discourse around education – be it policy, practice or vision – patience finds no mention, no foothold, carries no weight.

On the contrary, impatience is the working assumption. We simply cannot wait. We should not wait. And for many issues I would perhaps echo that sentiment. Impatience is warranted and called for in response to racialized police violence, in response to ending childhood poverty, in response to highly inequitable school systems. There are many areas where we as a society cannot wait to tackle certain issues. But when it comes to individual students and teachers and their progress, in their capacity to effect change, where is our patience and empathy? When it comes to policy makers setting standards for multiple school districts and expecting to see rapidly improved results within the 9-month sprint we call a school year, where do we find patience and common sense?

There is no app which will teach us or train our patience. Patience requires some depth of thought. Patience requires being able to slow down when the rest are speeding by in order to see precisely what is happening. Patience with our kids means daring to watch and wait before we rush in with an intervention. Patience with our teachers means trusting them to make decisions which benefit and grow student learning and not assuming that all the results of that learning will show up through standardized testing. Patience with our colleagues means listening and encouraging without shaming and judging. Patience creates space for individual variability. Patience provides a stepping stone for faith and positive belief. Patience allows us to spend time not knowing. Patience can teach us to listen first before we speak; to observe carefully before we evaluate.

Patience is something I miss in our education talk and behavior. We cannot copy and paste patience into our curricula or teaching practice. It will need to come from within us and our institutions. Creating space for patience in a school would require a seismic shift in culture and habits. Some schools enter through mindfulness practice. I hope more will choose to follow. For us as individuals swimming in this sea of accelerated everything, we’ll need to fashion our own life vests and buoys to keep us afloat and present to the situation as it is. We cannot turn off the machine. We can, however, moderate our own habits and ways of being in the world with our family, colleagues, students and strangers. There is no app for patience. We must grow and nurture and practice our own.

The Way of the Coach CC CC

Professional coaching is a passion. When I immerse myself in the process of accompanying my client, then I feel much closer to my very best than in many other situations. And some of my deepest learning related to coaching has come about by instructing others in the practice.

Back in 2005 I trained a group of high school girls to become peer coaches in their school community.  I designed the course and wrote all the handouts. This was during the early stages of my formal training.  Re-reading the materials I developed for them at the time, I am struck now by the clarity of my belief in the power of the coaching alliance.  In preparing them to conduct full coaching conversations I wrote the following:


You are the most important resource in coaching others: your precious attention, presence, and personal style. When you turn your attention and focus it intently and generously on your conversation partner, you are already doing your partner and the world a great service. Every time you open your ears and heart to not only hear what your partner is saying but also to feel and understand what he or she is experiencing and offering, you become a source of energy rather than a drain. You create space rather than close it off. You welcome and accept the other rather than dismiss him or her. This is the role of the coach and each of us possesses the wonderful potential to serve those around us in this way.

When you step into the role of the coach, bear these things in mind. Your presence and capacity to listen are to be given the highest priority. As long as these two channels are completely open and free, your competency in the coaching role will grow and become increasingly natural. You won’t need to grope for the next right question. The questions will come on their own, because you are there where your client needs you to be. Finding the best questions for the situation, person and intended direction require time and practice but above all, begin with your willingness to truly accompany and be with your conversation partner.

Be patient with yourself. Free yourself from feeling that you need to provide your partner with answers or advice. The attention you shower on your client and the first rate listening you offer are already huge gifts that can make a substantial difference to someone.

Thank you for your willingness to make the world around you a better place.  (Peer Coaching, 2005)

While it has been nearly a decade since I wrote those words, they are a great help to me today. I know well that professional training takes plenty of time, money and a strong commitment to work, above all, on oneself. Professional coaching programs abound and are expanding around the world. Be that as it may, learning to listen fully, deeply, and without judgement need not cost large sums.  Cultivating a form of conversation which empowers, uplifts and sustains others should not require certification. We can all learn these skills and be purposeful in how we apply them in the varied situations we face.  These are the inroads to building trust and modeling empathy. As Tony Sinanis argues in a recent post, we need both trust and empathy to build successful schools, and I would argue that this holds true for human organizations, in general.  The way of the coach provides valuable guidance on this path.

Let us take heart, be brave and risk being as present as we possibly can with our fellow travelers.  Or, how else shall we set about making that proverbial difference?


Knowing not

A recent post in my twitter feed truly gave me pause:

Enough said...
Enough said…

So true, I thought. And I thought about:
My students and all the desires, impulses, hopes and expectations they bring to my classroom…
My colleagues and all that it takes for them to bring it, day after day, with intent, purpose, joy and lots of prep…
My sweet husband, whose days at work remain a kind of mystery even as he describes them to me…
My oldest son, whose identity is unfolding daily, hour by hour…
My youngest son, whose inner life is so richly imaginative and full of wonder and also of many fears…

So much I cannot know. So much to which we remain blind. And yet, to be kind, to show respect, to listen, to be present … These are all choices we can make to bridge the gap of so many unknowns. This is the stuff of connection and humanity. This is what holds us together as strangers, colleagues, friends, family: the capacity to reach out while knowing not.

Special thanks to Elena Aguilar who posted this quote on her Art of Coaching Facebook page.

Tapping into the curse


Try this experiment: Find a partner who will be your “listener.”  Now select an easily recognizable melody in your mind (like “Happy Birthday” or “The Alphabet Song”) and then tap it out (on a table top, for instance) for your partner.  How likely is it that your listening partner will be able to name that tune?  According to a study from the early 90’s, tappers predicted the odds to be about 50-50.  In reality, the listeners were only able to guess the tunes at a rate of 1 in 40, instead of 1 in 2 as the tappers imagined.  What’s going on?

If you’ve ever read Made to Stick (2007) by Chip and Dan Heath, you’ll recognize this story as their introduction to one of the most fascinating concepts I’ve encountered in a number of years: The Curse of Knowledge.  As they explain it, the tappers, who have the melody playing in their heads as they tap it out for the listeners, can no longer imagine the position of the listener who is not party to the same inner soundtrack that is practically carrying the tune through those simple taps.  How could the listener possibly not get this one?  The tappers have fallen prey to the Curse of Knowledge.  “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.  our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us.” (Made to Stick, p. 20)

Just think about that for a minute. You can’t un-know what you know and it is very challenging to recall and recreate the experience of not having that knowledge.  Gives a new dimension to the notion of “misunderstandings” doesn’t it?  The curse of knowledge: I was just so excited about this idea once I read about it.  It made the daily, hourly, minute-to-minute dilemma of my teaching so clear.  Every day, every lesson – I am in the position of trying to bridge that gap, to undo the curse and connect with my students to reach a common understanding of how to, if-then and why not.  And, of course, my students are also avid “tappers.”  Imagine all the tunes they have stored up which make absolutely no sense to their seemingly nearly deaf and dimwitted elders!  They, too, experience the curse in their own way.

And so we dance. And tap. And listen. And tap some more.  The curse can be broken and it requires thought, sensitivity, clarity and vision. The Heath brothers provide a fascinating tour into methods to beat the curse. The curse of knowledge has proven very sticky in my own toolkit. If “awareness is the first step,” then “tapping” into your personal collection of curses to rediscover and recoup listeners lost, may prove a worthy next step.

It’s you

When was the last time you entered a conversation with the deliberate intent to focus your attention on the interests, needs and desires of your partner?  Usually we are motivated to speech in order to meet our own immediate needs:  to gain someone’s attention or to get something done.  I tell my spouse about my work day because I need to vent.  My son reminds me that he’s due for a play date with his friend this week. My students ask me where we will be having class. 

What happens, however, when we take the opportunity to turn the norm on it’s head.  What if, we entered the conversation wanting to find out not just how our conversation partner is doing and we also took the time to listen fully to his response?  What would happen if, when my son reminds me about wanting to see his friend, that I took the time to acknowledge how important this is to him and perhaps asked him to tell me more about this friend? What if, instead of bowling over my husband with my incredible “news of the day” as soon as he has a chance to sit down, I instead, offer him something to drink and ask him about whatever is on his mind (or maybe just let him choose not to share…)?

I raise these questions because I recently ran across a text I wrote several years ago in which I describe this outlook: “It’s you” or “It’s about you.” The text surprised me with both its clarity and passion.  I offer it here as food for thought from which we can all benefit:

When we have a conversation and my attitude says, “it’s about you,” then my focus, my presence, my eyes even are centered on you and your feelings, thoughts, expressions.  “It’s you” involves putting our own judgments, sentiments and opinions on hold while we address our full attention to the other.  We not only listen, we take in, duplicate, and create space for our partner to express what is most important to him or her.  We not only make eye contact with our partner but show through our eyes, facial expression and body language that we are with him or her, present for whatever he or she needs to communicate. 

When we are sincere in our perspective of “it’s about you,” miracles can happen.  We open the floodgates of possibility by shifting the spotlight from ourselves to our partners.  We can create space for the other to feel valued, appreciated, understood.  We can open ourselves to the love, generosity, and warmth that reside in each of us and in turn offer it to those with whom we come in contact.  We can create a state of inner abundance by recognizing that our capacity to give increases as we assist, support and accompany others on their journeys.

A short fairy tale illustrates this beautifully:

A young prince sought to meet his beloved maiden and knocked on the door of her chamber.  “Who’s there?” asked a female voice from inside.  “It’s me,” the young prince replied.

“In this room there is not enough space for you and me,” came the response and the door remained quite closed.

The young prince went away and traveled for many months.  He contemplated the maiden’s answer and when he believed to have found the better response he returned to her door.  He knocked.

“Who’s there?” came the query from inside.  The prince responded: “It’s you,” and the door was opened and he entered.

Try working with this perspective.  Consider it an avenue on the way to full presence for others, a means to seek the best possible in people and situations.  Be prepared to find out how much more you can be when you focus your precious attention on others.  There is hardly a greater gift we have to offer the people we know and care about.



Teaching to learn

If you spend any time around children, the pace, variety and magnitude of their learning can be downright dizzying. But it is often only partly (or not at all) related to school learning. Kids watch other kids, watch grown-ups, pay attention to anything, everything and what sometimes appears to be nothing at all. They are learning. Putting two and two together. Figuring. Making guesses. Picking up. Gathering. Witnessing. Taking in. Saving it for later or using it right now. 

I have the privilege of observing these processes on a daily basis, at work and at home. My students surprise, fascinate and at times also exasperate me and I am humbled again and again by their thirst for making meaning. Much of my day seems to proceed in a blur and yet I cherish those moments when time slows down and I can listen to what my students have to tell me. I hear quite a bit about sore muscles, recent scrapes, sudden tummy aches and of course, hurt feelings. What I have found is that few of these ailments require more treatment at that moment than a simple airing followed by an empathic response. When my students feel heard and sufficiently attended to, they are, in a manner, “healed.” (A good game of tag is also helpful.)

My oldest students (4th and 5th graders) are working on team building challenges these days and my greatest challenge as the teacher is to stay out of the way of their learning. I hand over the responsibility to them for attempting and completing the challenge. I invite them to struggle, to endure some frustration, overcome setbacks and practice remaining positive even when progress seems slow. Of course, a part of me wants to speed them along by offering a critical hint and a stray piece of advice. It is hard to watch them stumble, get stuck and fail. And yet, with each new session they get better: they develop patience (a little at least), they begin to strategize before diving in, they stop blaming each other and before long they are celebrating increased success. When they celebrate, they fully own their accomplishments and can articulate what made the difference and why. These are the classes where I talk the least and learn the most: about my students and their capabilities and about the importance of keeping them in the spotlight.

My best work as a “teacher” lies less in the act of teaching as telling and much more in the realm of opening doors and creating space for learning to take place. My students, it turns out, are remarkably patient teachers and for that I am tremendously grateful.