Dear Everyone

My kid came home from the first day of 5th grade convinced his new teacher hates him. Apparently she is a fire breathing dragon, and will soon fry and consume him in her wrath. Or something like that. Last night I asked for more details in this epic tale of fiery woe, beyond “she’s really strict and picks on me.” My son thought for a bit, and then said: “I sat on the couch with another kid, and she thought we should sit on the floor with everyone else to be fair because not everyone fit on the couch. And so she yelled our names and said to get off the couch. My other teachers would have said ‘let’s all sit on the floor together’ instead of naming names. It made me feel bad.” He was silent for a moment then added, in case I was insufficiently convinced: “And she gave us The Death Stare.”

Poor teachers. For the record, I wish Ms. Fire Breathing Dragon luck in her quest to educate our children. May your scales be strong and your wits always be about you.

This conversation followed on the heels of one with a friend who works for a large company. He described how infuriating (and befuddling) it was when people sent out chastising all-staff emails that addressed everyone (as if they were all equally culpable) when there were just one or two offenders. Emails like: “Just to remind everyone, only people with handicapped stickers should park in the handicapped spot,” or “Please remember that our dress code is business casual.” Only one or two people were flouting the rules, but everyone got the rebuke.

So who’s right? The teacher who calls out the misbehavers directly, or the manager who reminds everyone of what only a couple of people need to be told?

Both and neither. Which approach you use when someone (or all of us) need to change something at work should be driven by your goal, your audience, and the general usefulness of the information you are providing. If only one person needs to know something, and other people wouldn’t benefit from that information, you only talk to that one person – no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. And preferably you do it in private. If many people could learn from something, and there is no real harm to addressing a large group, you address a large group. And in all cases, you think about how your audience will feel; who will be hurt, who will be shamed, who will be entertained at someone else’s expense.

But is that how we decide how to communicate? I think many of us don’t actually “decide” how to address a behavior at work. We don’t rationally think through our goal, audience, and usefulness of the information. Instead we think “Oh gosh. It is so weird to talk about dress code! Who thinks a tube top and shorts is appropriate work attire, anyway? Ugh.” And then we chicken out of talking to the one person wearing the tube top and daisy dukes and send an all-staff email about work attire because talking about it would make us squirm. This is bad. Giving in to this discomfort means sending an all staff email that will not only affront the 99% of the office who follow the code, but might also lead people to titter and gossip about who was that email really meant for? You think it was the tube top lady or the guy with the really tight pants? You have simply taken the discomfort from yourself and spread it around.

With my son and his buddy and the fire-breathing dragon there are two scenarios that would either support or undercut the teacher’s actions. If her goal was just to get the kids off the couch and the information was simply “join the group,” she handled it badly. A quick “let’s all sit on the floor together” would have sufficed. But perhaps her goal was different. Perhaps her goal was to put two class clowns on notice, publicly, in order to communicate her expectations for behavior to the entire class, and the couch was just an early opportunity to make a larger point. Nice? Not terribly. But she was quick, clear, and effective.

I am not bringing much clarity here, am I? Basically, when communicating about a behavior you’d like changed, you may have a few choices:

  1. Talk to one person privately about her behavior
  2. Talk to a whole group as a way to reach just one person without calling him out
  3. Call out one person (in public or private) to teach a whole group

Each choice has its drawbacks. Choice 1 potentially keeps useful information to just one person, when others could benefit. Choice 2 can be cowardly and create gossip and confusion. Choice 3 can be downright cruel and risks breaking trust. Knowing the drawbacks, I think the key is to make a conscious decision: what are the pros and cons? My son’s teacher probably decided a swift imposition of order outweighed the boys’ embarrassment at being called out in public. On the other hand, my friend’s managers probably just didn’t want to confront the one person who was parking in the handicapped spot without a sticker. The teacher made a reasoned choice, while the manager made a cowardly one. Maybe the manager could use some scales and fire (and backbone), too.

4 thoughts on “Dear Everyone

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  1. Great post. Also, timely. I’m in a dilemma where I think my son’s childcare provider is letting him watch TV even though I have explicitly asked her not to. I’m debating whether to talk to her privately again; talk to the other mom privately and tell her I need help navigating (childcare is at her house, she doesn’t have the language barrier that I do, she knows the provider better, etc.); attempt a meeting all three of us and say WE have an issue to solve. GAH! Struggling! Any advice, oh wise sage?

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  2. How about option 4, stick you head in the sand and pretend you don’t know she’s doing what you asked her not to? Nah, I guess not. Its hard. But assuming the other mom knows about the TV and isn’t worried enough about it to do something, I’d try to talk to the provider directly. The language barrier adds a complication, though. See, I have no sage advice. Sympathy, though, lots of that! I remember when my kid was about 2 and his day care provider finally admitted that my son had been refusing the lovely hand-made organic meals I was sending in with him and begging for the chicken nuggets and fries she was feeding the rest of the kids, and she was letting him have them so he wouldn’t go home hungry. He does still love nuggets and fries…

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  3. Great post. It took me many years to have the equanimity to have squirmy conversations. My general rule of thumb is to speak to others the way I would like to be spoken to. I also take a problem-solving approach to difficult conversations, trying to minimize the me vs you dynamic. There really does come a time when you can appreciate difficult conversations as opportunities to more deeply understand others.

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    1. I love your approach, Hannah. I still struggle with squirmy conversations myself – but as you say, if I want people to help me even when it is uncomfortable for them I have to return the favor. So I work at it!

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