Releasing fear in our relationships at work.
One of the most effective ways of bolstering our resilience and wellbeing is our sense of connection – the social support that is available to us. Even the perception of good social support has a protective element. Teachers are no strangers to hard work or commitment. The vocational aspect of our work gives a huge sense of purpose, a drive that helps us push up the face of the Eiger that lies before us each term. In a high-stakes, high-pressure job like teaching this sense of social support is a must-have. But here’s the thing. How easy is it for relationships between colleagues to become disconnected and spiky? And how easy is it for the protagonists in that situation to be driven by narratives of fear. In the many years of my service as an ATL/NEU rep at my school, I witnessed at close hand the toxic impact of these twists and turns of fate.
So the year begins, we’re back in harness…and we’re off to the races with schemes of work, the relentless bell that tolls the turning of the timetable. And when it’s all OK, we’re all in our little silos of our classrooms entrusted to get on with things, and we’re managing and managed in a light-touch way. Happy days.
Until it’s not. And often in actuality it’s a small thing that’s eminently repairable. Perhaps for various reasons you haven’t been able to keep pace with a scheme of work. Perhaps you mis-read exactly what was required of you. Perhaps one of the kids in your class has been struggling unbeknownst to you and their parent has written in expressing concern. Perhaps you expressed some concerns in a meeting and gave the perception of being challenging, even obstructive… And then we’re into ‘difficult conversations’ territory, with back-up emails acting as a record. Sometimes, the issue isn’t even enacted in a face to face way – but via email missive – because it’s all too easy to allow the ‘ships that pass’ aspect of our separate timetables to get in the way… And the switch into formality feels threatening, cold, othering. Our sense of belonging is rocked. We’re cycling back in the past for evidence, counter arguments, self-justifications, bolstering our sense of woe at injustice, and we are scanning the horizon for catastrophe.
We talk the talk on growth mindset for the kids in school – but in actuality we have a very low threshold for imperfection in our work in school life… And this is often both from the management side, and the side of the individual. Although cognitively we know that we can’t be all things to all our pupils, all of the time, being confronted with the reality that this occasionally is not the case can feel like an earthquake. And can be treated like an earthquake. As a line manager way back in the past, I can remember being deeply concerned about the impact of a colleagues’ negativity. And I was on her case…and really what I was doing was chasing her down the drain. A lightbulb moment came when I realized that actually, I treated my terrible car, an ancient Citroen Xantia, with more faith and optimism than this person. Despite the evidence in garage bills to the contrary, every time I put the key in the ignition of the old behemoth, it was with more hope than any of the interactions I was having with this person. It didn’t help her, or the situation. And it added to my own stress levels as I had fallen into the exhausting micro-management trap. It was destructive.
Investigations, observations, highly formalized ‘informal’ processes can be experienced as being highly persecutory. And often it can be the fear within the management structure…that the buck will stop with you…we’re not having the children failed ‘on our watch’… Lengthy emails arriving like heat-seeking missiles late into the evening setting out a case, presenting evidence and ‘next step’ solutions. Or even worse, the point of correction is actually demonstrated for the hapless individual – presented as support but in actual fact is a micro-management…undermining trust. You didn’t do it right – so look, I have done it for you. In workshops I have done in schools in the past on handling conflict, when I ask people to discuss the impact of a complaint, a disagreement etc, the intensity of the emotional experience in all of its physicality comes right out into the open… Racing heart, hyperventilation, nausea, even vomiting, headaches, hypervigilance, racing thoughts…All these are survival responses physiologically. And appropriate to a life-threatening problem. When fear drives us in situations of difficulty and difference, we play small, and in doing so we often erode the very psychological safety that makes learning, growth, collaboration, repair possible. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With creativity, care, and commitment, things can get stronger and better at the point of fracture – as the Japanese art of Kinsugi symbolizes.
WATCH for AVOIDANCE Avoidance is facilitated by email. And it gets in the way of being in relationship over the inevitable points of difficulty. If you’re getting into a cycle of lengthy emails that have to be composed in the relative calm of the evening because you feel you have to be so careful to get all your points in and get the wording right, DROP THE ROPE of email. No matter how carefully you word it, there are no soft landings for points of difficulty in an email. It’s going to hit harder than you intend it. If you need to say more than 3 things in an email, it’s ineffective. And if you are responding to someone’s lengthy email, say one thing in reply. You can’t play chess 20 moves at a time. That’s what you are doing to your relationships when you unload a whole shopping list of pointers. You have wrecked the ‘game’ by overloading and making it more about your concern than our concern. Keep it brief and get offline – pick up the phone or meet. We ALL know this but we still do the email anyway…(sad / angry emoji)… Of course a professional difficulty at work is going to be fearful. But what might it mean to handle that fear in a wise way so that we can get back to being in relationship, so that trust and repair are more possible.
Understanding fear: Fear is necessary for our survival – our system is wired for a certain amount of vigilance. But when we are in a fearful place, we are also wired to remember what goes wrong and fixate on troubles. It isn’t good for us to be in this state of mind for long periods of time. It is detrimental to being able to bring our fullest selves to the problem. It affects our cognition, our ability to relate, and it causes wear and tear on our physical health. Fear is habit-forming – it makes us avoidant, and when we avoid we exclude the possibility of reality checking and gaining mastery. We become mistrustful of ourselves and others. The more we avoid our fear by running from it, and staying in reaction, protection, defensiveness, the stronger and more toxic it becomes. Living with fear is to live a life that is constricted. And how many teachers leave the profession, leave their jobs, and experience terrible health-consequences in the strangle-hold of fear. The word worry comes from the Old English word ‘to strangle’ – Wyrga. What can we do? How can we emerge from the protective cocoon of fear, self-protection, and avoidance and bring our fuller selves to the situation.
- Stop and slow down the revolving door or worry, fear, rumination. Mindfully and kindly open yourself to the experience of fear that you are in. Face it.
- Pinpoint where your fear is being held in your body. Feel it with compassion and curiosity. Label and identify it in your mind. Name what you are feeling, what the importance is, and notice what the impact is.
- Acknowledge and allow the presence of your fear. Let it be…and see if this helps you let some of it go. Let the fear exist – but don’t let it have control…Remember the power of Voldemort increases when he is unnamed.
- Separate out fear (the immediate danger) from anxiety (your worry about the fear and what it may mean for the future). Notice the type of worry thoughts that come up for you. Create separation between yourself and your thoughts…Give them a name… ‘Worry worms’, ‘Fear thinking’.
- Can you reframe some of what’s going on in your mind? Mark Twain said many wise, wise things…and among them is that ‘Some of the worst things in my life never happened.
- From this position of reflection, ask yourself what it is you need. What can you do to help reduce your levels of anxiety and put you in a position to identify and make your next move from a less fearful position?
- Consider what is really at stake for you here. What are the principles and values that underly the situation you are in with your colleague(s). Where is there common ground, and where do you feel there are values at breach – eg trust…
- Examine the patterns of behaviour that are dominating the way you are interacting since the point of conflict arose. Where is there opportunity for clearing the air, widening and deepening the pool of understanding between you, and setting forward a plan of what accountability might look like in a more collaborative way that will meet the needs for both of you better…
- Plan to meet with your colleague and discuss this face-to-face. Prepare carefully to prevail. This is a high stakes situation for you. Know your bottom line – exactly what it is you are concerned about and why it is important, and what you want to change. Put relationship in the foreground.
- Remember that most grievance policies have a real emphasis on the importance of an informal process as pre-emptive of any formality. Make sure it isn’t a replica of the formal process. And if you feel things are proceeding in an overly formal way, ask for clarification, name it. ‘When you said / did X, it made me feel like we’re going through stage Y of the X procedure. Can you clarify for me what is going on here? Should we have HR involved? Should I be seeking advice from my union?’
This may seem like a funny time to be writing this sort of newsletter. But unaddressed conflicts and damaged relationships span academic years, and get in the way of fresh starts. Sometimes, the pause of the holiday, time to think, reading and training opportunities percolate, and a new more urgent lens can be brought to bear. Or perhaps the start of term INSET day was overladen with several fearful agendas…the school’s finances, imminent inspection…Fear is contagious and it presses down in its urgency. From Head, to Senior Team, to Middle leaders, through to teachers AND ultimately the pupils. How we respond to and work with more insight and discernment can break us free from the cocoon of the worry-worm.I don’t want you to feel that the 10 step plan is reductive. Fear is a powerful driver, and it can be pervasive. Fear of failure and self-doubt are looping cycles of thought and feeling that can be trapping. It takes courage to face fears, face each other and find greater freedom.If you feel this or you know a colleague who is stuck and needs help -I’d encourage you to find a trusted mentor to talk it through in confidence. IF you think a powerful coaching conversation from a professional might help you take better steps on either side of the line-management equation, feel free to get in touch.If you feel that work could be done in the culture of your school to improve psychological safety around conflict, I major in training people in the skills for having difficult conversations and managing the inevitable difficult situations that emerge in the greatest resource a school has – it’s humans – in all their perfect imperfection.With love, gratitude and fortitude for the challenges ahead…Emma.firstname.lastname@example.org