Humans are programmed for connection with others. We are built to find a way to belong to a group and reciprocate a sense of belonging in other people. We a lean, mean, loving machines!
While we are built for connection, navigating relationships can be really tough. As a leader, you are expected to build strong relationships with teachers, support staff, children, parents, and your community. As a human, you are also emotionally entwined with your friends and family.
Sometimes, the hardest relationships in our lives are with people we love very much and respect deeply. We simply have differing perspectives or ideas. Sometimes, we just really don’t like a person (or vise versa) and the relationship is just a challenge from the start. Sometimes, there are just seasons in a relationship that ebb and flow between peace and friction.
Of all of the relationships in your life, I bet it would take you less than ten seconds to name the ones that are most stressful to you. You know, the people who trigger a physical reaction when you see them or hear their voice or the ones that keep you up at night with frustration or worry.
Take a moment to write down the name(s) of people with whom you are having a tough time right now. Maybe there is only one, maybe there are several.
I’m going to share a story with you about a relationship I had with a teacher as an example throughout this post, we’ll call her “Poppy.” The story is in Italics.
I’d put my money on you being able to easily list the reasons this relationship is challenging you right now. Most folks can quickly identify what the other person has done to create emotional static. Sometimes it is a personality trait that triggers something in us to make us feel derision or irritation towards another person.
Take a moment and write down what it is about this person/their actions that has you in your current emotional state. What were their words and actions? What feelings do they trigger in you?
“Poppy” triggered me. The story I told myself about her was that she was an entitled brat who played the victim to get her way. As a very self-sufficient person who has faced significant challenges in my life and worked very hard to get to where I am, I have a tendency to feel bothered by people I perceive to be “weak” or afraid of hard work. She was one of these people.
She seemed to always have a complaint: there were too many boys in her class; the gift the parents got her wasn’t nice enough (seriously, she wanted to send them a hate email shaming them for a gift they bought her); keeping records on every child was too hard; her new assistant didn’t know how to do his job perfectly by the end of his first week; field trips were too much work to plan.
When she came to my office, she was sure to have a complaint but no ideas for a solution. The truth is, I couldn’t stand her. The hair on the back of my neck rose every time I laid eyes on her.
Now we get to the part that is a little bit harder, let’s talk about how YOU have contributed to the problem. I know you already know this, but I’m going to say it anyway: if there is a problem in a relationship in your life, you are for sure contributing to it.
The goal here isn’t to beat yourself up. Our goal today is to examine your toughest relationships through a new lens. Take a moment to write down the ways you have actively contributed to the challenging nature of the relationship.
Poppy was a human trigger for my deepest emotional baggage. I know that my responses to her were significantly less compassionate than those I gave to the other teachers. My ultimate goal was to ensure that she knew that complaining and playing the victim would not ever work with me.
Unfortunately, my goal should have been to try and understand her. I could have treated her like a fun human puzzle to solve. “How can I build a strong relationship with someone that triggers me?” She could have been one of my greatest personal teachers, but I let the opportunity pass me by. Instead, I put up a wall.
I remember one of our conversations very well:
POPPY: Planning this field trip is getting really overwhelming.
ME (deadpan expression and voice): *sigh* Uh huh.
POPPY: There are all of these boys in my classroom this year and it is going to be too hard. I’m going to email the parents to tell them our class isn’t going.
ME: Every Primary class is going on this field trip and the parents already know about it. You have to go.
POPPY: But you’re making us take this field trip. I didn’t even choose this for my class.
ME: Nope. You didn’t choose it, you just have to do it.
POPPY: This isn’t fair! I should be in charge of deciding what happens with my class.
ME: I can tell you really feel like a victim right now but I can assure you that you aren’t having an actual problem. I expect your class to go on the field trip and I expect you to pull your weight with your team as you organize it.
POPPY: (Narrows her eyes and stabs me in the face with silent daggers before walking away.)
Oof, what a missed opportunity! This was my first year as a leader and this is a classic rendition of most of my conversations with her. I really grew a lot from this experience, but not until after she quit. My relationship with “Poppy” is one of my big regrets from my tenure as an administrator.
What are the ways in which you are contributing to the hardest relationships in your life? One thing I know for sure is that we can’t change the actions, beliefs, or behaviors of others but we can change ourselves.
Are there stories you are telling yourself about this person that you can change? Can you adapt your narrative to shift your thinking? Are there behaviors you have that are sending messages to this person, encouraging them to treat you a certain way?
How do YOU want to show up in this relationship…in your life?
Experiment with making small shifts in how you interact with and think about this person. See if it helps to change the nature of the relationship over time. In my experience, some of the deepest connections we form are with those people with whom we have overcome differences.
Use the toughest relationship in your life as an opportunity to grow.
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