I invite you back in time to my first year of Junior High School. In those days the Junior High journey started with seventh grade. Being a seventh grader was a lot like being in first grade. It was a new location and a new way of doing the day. There were lots of new faces and it was the first year of changing classes every hour. In a very real sense, we were all starting again – socially and academically.
Come with me to math class – maybe 1/3 of the way through the school year. It was a tough day for me. A math concept (probably fractions) had me perplexed. I just didn’t understand it. Based on what I know of myself now I feel quite confident that I was outwardly agitated. I probably raised my hand a lot and intoned my questions and comments with a bit of sharpness. I felt stupid and I didn’t know what to do with that.
Although I don’t remember every detail of our interaction I do remember one. At a particular moment, in front of the class, when the tension was extra high, my teacher (I still remember her name) looked at me and declared out loud…
“You are either not listening or you are stupid!”
Now, did I deserve that? Actually, my math teacher might have said yes. Me? Not so much.
Now, whatever you and I think about the nuances of that interaction I want to invite you to join me in wondering about this moment with me. In the effort of full disclosure I want to make clear that since that day – and particularly as an adult – I have found myself countless times in the place of my math teacher. Having someone in front of me that (I believe) just doesn’t get it. I just want to call them “stupid” or “not listening” and be done with them.
So what am I to do at that moment?
A tool that has helped me in recent days is that of “reframing”. It’s particularly helpful when the leadership work required is adaptive/generative.* Generally speaking reframing invites us to be awake to where we are standing to view a given situation and consciously wonder about what it might look like to stand somewhere else.
So, in the case of my math teacher, my guess is that her frame was informed largely by a touchy 7th grade boy who didn’t get a simple math concept and was responding in ways that were (quite possibly) challenging her skill and authority in a room filled with other seventh graders. How dare he behave this way. I will make him pay. And, she did.
So, what might a reframe look like?
Reframing is always helped by more thoughtful questions. Questions like: What if my teacher had wondered more about what she didn’t know about this situation than what she felt she did? What if the focus was less about responding to her feelings and more about wondering where this frustration was coming from (hers and mine)? What if this moment really wasn’t about math? What if this moment was about a young boy who actually DID feel stupid in front of his peers didn’t have the tools to know how to handle that? How might those questions alone have invited my teacher to stand at a new place as she assessed what was needed at that moment with me and the class?
Again, lest I come off as a bitter adult who was emotionally bruised by his seventh grade math teacher, let me clarify. I have, multiple times, been my seventh grade teacher in moments like these. The question I’m offering us today isn’t about blame…it’s about what each of us do when we are standing where my teacher stood. God knows, given enough time, all of us will stand there?
Personally, honing the skill of reframing has helped me here. Let me offer some ideas that have gotten me started on honing that skill.
- Reframing starts with acknowledging my emotions and (at the same moment) work around them.
Showing up more effectively starts with realizing where we are emotionally and acknowledging our feelings. Your feelings are important. They are telling you something. But they shouldn’t be the only voice that informs how we respond – in particularly when the challenges we are facing are adaptive.*
Do you feel angry? Do you feel frustrated? Do you feel attacked? Acknowledge that to yourself. This is you. This informs where you are at right now.
- Reframing requires a clear sense of my affirmed values and purpose.
The next step is to take hold of your feelings and set them to the side for a moment. Don’t get rid of them or deny them. Just set them to the side. Now, as you stand with them, clarify your purpose in that moment.
Is your purpose to: be right?
look important or smart?
invite others to wonder with you?
A critical piece of reframing effectively is to clarify your purpose and then inform and hold your feelings accountable to responding more appropriately based on that affirmed purpose.
As a parent, when my child frustrates me, is my purpose to show them who is boss? OR is my purpose to invite/challenge them to mature in their behavior? Hey, there may be times when the purpose may legitimately be to clarify who’s boss. I get it. But that’s my decision (as parent) to make. But remember, if that’s the only message that informs how I show up at every moment as a parent, that frame is going to impact my effectiveness. And my child and I will both be impacted by that limited frame over the long haul.
Here’s an insight. We can be totally frustrated and still be effective in not letting our feelings control us in a given moment. Yes – it’s true. But it’s really hard and it takes learning, focus and practice. It begins with acknowledging our feelings and holding those feelings accountable to our clarified purpose.
There is so much more that we could say about reframing but I offer you the preceding as a starting point. Wherever you stand on this I invite you to wonder more about your “go-to” frames these days.
How are your current frames helping you (and those around you) to make progress?
How are they affirming your values and purpose?
Where might you experiment with standing in a different frame?
Who might you trust enough to have a hard conversation about frames they see you using that you may not be awake to?
One more thing. To my seventh grade math teacher. I get it. I was probably being a jerk. I probably needed an attitude adjustment. God knows, you may have been having a tough day yourself. What if you were? What if I just happened to be the one giving you grief when you just didn’t need any more? What if there were things going on in your life (that were none of my business) that had you on your edge? I wonder how that reframe might have helped me…and you. I invite you to join me in wondering about all of it. Not to be right…but to be more effective the next time…and the next…and the next…
* When a patient comes to a surgeon, the surgeon’s default setting is to say, you’ve got a problem, I’ll take the problem off your shoulders and I’ll deliver back to you a solution [technical work]. In psychiatry, when a person comes to you with a problem, it’s not your job actually to solve their problem. It’s your job to develop their capacity to solve their own problem [ADAPTIVE work]. Ron Heifetz. Brackets added.