by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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None of us are where we are at by the sheer force of our own selves. All of us are exactly where we are at because of the support, guidance, and help of so many people who have crossed paths with us. There are countless people who have had an influence on our lives. Some have been positive, some have been negative, but the common thread for all of these people is that that they each in their own way have had an impact on our lives. We grow everyday through our interactions with others. We learn who we are by how others react to us, how others like what we are doing, and how some people don’t like what we are doing. We learn to traverse our paths in constant interactions with others who help to guide us when we get lost, to nourish us when we are struggling, and to celebrate us when we are successful.
Too often though, in our busy lives, we don’t pause long enough to seek these individuals out and say thank you. From parents to siblings, teachers to coaches, mentors to bosses, and everybody in between, we continue to move right by them in our constant pursuit of success (however we each define the notion of success). We interact with them on a regular basis – we work with them, we cry on their shoulder, we laugh with them, we learn from them, we break bread with them, we argue with them, we get lost in deep conversations about life with them – but we rarely thank them.
Thanksgiving offers a perfect opportunity to truly say thank you to all of those who have had a lasting impact on our lives. Many of us offer thanks on this holiday for the blessings upon our lives, for the food we eat, for the family we are surrounded with, but we rarely single out those people that we are thankful for. We rarely take the time to say thank you for making a difference in our lives. We rarely think deeply about all of the people who have made a difference in our lives. We rarely think about how they have impacted our lives. We rarely think about how our interaction with them has helped us to interact with others. We rarely think about how our interaction with them has helped us to be able to help others.
I know that I am thankful for all of the teachers, coaches, professors, colleagues, siblings, friends, and parents who have made me the person I am today. I would not be the person I am today without their influence on my life. Even the negative interactions with difficult family members or colleagues or students have helped to shape me and to change me as I continue to develop. Some of the most difficult students I have ever dealt with helped me to be a better teacher. They often helped me more than the students who were all-stars and never caused a problem. The reason was because they were pushing me to change, to develop new routines and strategies for dealing with issues, pushing me to be constantly changing my practice to as to connect with and make a difference for every student of mine. The same can be said for difficult colleagues who I have had to deal with. They each in their own way have helped me to grow, to change, to develop, to increase the difference that I can make.
While it may be difficult to say thank you to all of the people in our lives who have helped us – especially the ones who helped us through negative experiences – it is worth taking time over this Thanksgiving holiday to seek people out and say thank you. And if it is too difficult to find them or to connect with them or even too difficult to actually say the words thank you, it is important for our lives that we at least take a few minutes to reflect on the difference they have made for us, for our careers, for our family life, and for our success. For with this reflection on how others have made a difference in my life, I will have a greater ability to make a difference in other people’s lives. I know this Thanksgiving holiday, I am going to take time out of the busyness of the day to say thank you in my own way. And for me, it all begins with thanking my own parents for no one has had made a bigger difference on my life and my role as an educator, athlete, leader, coach, husband, and father. Thank you Mom and Dad for making a difference in my life.
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“I am just overwhelmed. Nothing seems to be going right. I feel like everything in my life is a struggle. My car wouldn’t start the other morning and the bill is huge to fix it. My son is struggling in school and I have to meet with his teacher. My house is a mess and I don’t have time to clean it. I haven’t worked out in weeks and am feeling less healthy by the day. A group of parents at my school are rallying against my recent decision on Math classes. My teachers took over our last staff meeting with complaints about our school and me. It seems everybody on Facebook is having fun and taking vacations while I don’t have time for anything. I am working hard. I am getting in early and staying late. I feel like I work every day, every night, and every weekend. I am always behind. I can’t catch up. I feel like nothing is going right in my life. I am just overwhelmed.” This was the opening statement in a recent coaching session from one of the principals who I have been coaching. It is not surprising to have one of my coachees, especially after we have developed an effective coaching relationship, to open up and share what’s going on in his or her life. But this was more than just the basic school- or job-related issues that many share with me – this was heartfelt, this was someone overwhelmed by society, this was stress.
Stress has become an all too familiar part of our lives and we tend to get overwhelmed very quickly, through a pattern of getting hit with a first wave of bad luck or a bad situation (in her case the broken down car), then we notice that more and more waves (many that are small but feel massive) seem to continue to knock at us until we are on the ocean floor surrounded by water, fighting to get to the surface. Suddenly we have this feeling that everything both professionally and personally is going against us. As I listened to her talk about the issues she was facing, I recognized that she was allowing everything to spin out of control because she was not compartmentalizing. As in the picture above, just because one bin in your life is a mess it does not mean the rest of the bins are a mess as well, but our mind tells us this is the case.
So I asked her to do an exercise with me. We took a single sheet of paper and drew 3 lines from top to bottom and 5 lines from side to side to create a set of 24 boxes. In each box, I asked her to write down an issue that she was currently facing that was causing her to feel completely overwhelmed. She filled up about 14 boxes very quickly, but then had to think hard before filling in 6 more boxes. She left 4 boxes open because she couldn’t think of any more issues. We used 4 different colored markers to put an x in each box based off of how difficult the issue was. Red x’s meant this was a life or death type of issue. Blue x’s were for very difficult issues that either would take a long time or a lot of money to fix. Black x’s were for somewhat difficult issues that could be solved with some time or some money. Green x’s were for issues that weren’t really a big deal or could be solved very quickly. After completing this, I noticed that she had 1 red (e.g. health), 4 blues (e.g., broken car), 5 blacks (e.g., son struggling in school), and 10 greens (e.g. finding time to relax). For the 4 remaining empty boxes, I had her draw a symbol that makes her smile, which she drew a sun with a smiley face and sunglasses in each.
I then started to talk her through her Compartmentalized Issue Chart. I said, “Wow, the way you started out, I thought I would need to get about 10 pages of boxes to fill out your chart.” She laughed, which meant we had made an initial step. “You only have 20 issues to deal with right now, that doesn’t sound like everything is going wrong in your life,” I continued, “in fact, there are 10 issues here that you noted aren’t even that big of an issue, so really we are looking at 10 issues that are causing you to feel overwhelmed.” She replied, “Yeah, I guess when you put it that way, it isn’t much. But it is all just so…” I put my hand up before she could finish, “Wait a minute, let’s not go there. I mean you couldn’t even fill out the entire sheet. Look at the smiley suns with sunglasses.” She smiled again, another note that we were making progress.
We then made a list of 10 things she could do right away to turn the 10 green x’s into 10 more suns. Then we selected the most important x in each of the red, blue, and black categories and place a checkmark next to it in yellow (the same color as the suns). Then we talked through one strategy for each of these 3 that she could take moving forward, not to turn it into a sun, but rather to move it down 1 color of less significance. For example, for the 1 red x, the broken car, we devised a plan to have her borrow a car from her parents (something she did not want to have to do, but we talked about how giving in in one area could reduce her stress seriously overall). We did the same for the blue and black key x. As she left the coaching session, she now had a set of 10 immediate, quick things she could do to turn her green x’s into suns, and 3 strategies for beginning to address her red, blue, and black x’s.
What is amazing is that while I was there to coach her on being a better educational leader, we had realized that the issues she was facing in her personal life had begun to seep into her professional life and vice versa. She had talked about being so upset and overwhelmed about her car, health, and son, that she had missed the warning signs that her staff and school parents weren’t happy. She was drowning in her inability to compartmentalize. This simple and fun exercise didn’t solve every problem and did not instantly take away the overwhelming feeling. That takes time. But what it did do was allow her to break down the overwhelming feeling into compartments and then take each one of these and address them. It is something we should all be thinking about in this current era of feeling overwhelmed and pressured. By compartmentalizing we are able to recognize that not everything is going badly, and that some of the issues we face aren’t really that big and can be quickly dealt with. When we compartmentalize, we are able to recognize that just because one bin is a mess, it doesn’t automatically mean the rest of the bins are a mess as well.
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When my kids were little they were having a rough morning filled with not listening, arguing, and having trouble getting along – you know all of the things kids do with their siblings. I pulled them aside for a talk and started with, “You both need to turn it around.” The next thing I know, both kids literally turned around in their place, a full 360° spin before facing me again. I didn’t know what to do – I mean I wanted to burst into laughter, but this was a serious conversation. Not knowing what to do next since the rest of my speech on behaving well and getting along seemed to have had the air let out of it by their turnarounds, I just said, “Good job, now let’s go back to having fun.” The two of them ran off and the rest of the day went great.
Now I know what you are thinking, “Yeah sure, if only things were that easy” or “Yeah well it works with his kids, but he doesn’t know my kids.” After the success of this with my own children, I began to use this as a strategy in my classroom as well. When kids were having a tough time in class, such as not getting along with others, I would talk to the kid on the side and have them do this literal turnaround. It worked particularly well with students who I was having a tough time getting through to, or who were caught up in arguing with me. There was something about going through this simple spin that brings new perspective on the situation, as I believe the kids take their attention off of the conversation with the adult or the problem they are having with the other kid because they have to think about the movement of spinning their body. I admit that I am still amazed at how well this literal turnaround works, and yes, it is not foolproof, as there have been many times where we had to keep working on behavior and attitudes after the turnaround spin.
As I saw the successful use of this with my students, I thought about how this literal turnaround could help us as adults when faced with difficult problems or conversations. It happens to all of us throughout our day, we get frustrated or upset at a situation or a person. I have now tried to take this approach in my dealings with colleagues and friends. I strongly advise against doing what I did the first time I tried this new method when I did a literal spin in front of the person I was dealing with. Let’s just say this didn’t help out immediately because I think the person thought I was literally crazy! To avoid being seen as crazy, but still getting the positive vibe of the turnaround, try doing one or both of two things.
First while in the difficult conversation – maybe it is with a colleague who is heavily criticizing you or with a student’s parent who is hassling you over your teaching – try consciously thinking in your head about literally moving your body around in a complete circle. This conscious thought will often help you get a new framework or perspective on the situation and will often tone down the frustration you might be feeling. It is like the old school “count to ten,” but with a more conscious effort at changing your perspective. The second method comes after the situation is over when you return to your cubicle, office, or classroom. At that point, stop and think about what you were just dealing with and how it was troubling you and then do a literal turnaround. You will be amazed at the impact it will have on your perspective, feelings, and frustration.
As I mentioned previously, this is not a foolproof plan for dealing with every problem, but as you put it into greater practice you will feel the impact. I use this tactic when working with school leaders and teachers. In the middle of my workshops, especially when we are stuck in a conversation that is not going anywhere, I have everyone in the room stand up and literally turnaround. We repeat this as many times as needed to get the conversation moving forward again (obviously don’t do it consecutively where everyone ends up dizzy)! So the next time you are having a tough time, or are frustrated, or notice a conversation with a group is not going anywhere, stop and literally turnaround! In no time, you will feel the change that my little ones feel when they do their spin!