Human Relations at Preservice Training

Human relations at training

This one will be a bit of a challenge to write, for two reasons. I will reveal more of my own weaknesses than usual (both intentionally and probably unintentionally) and I must write it in a manner that makes it impossible to identify anyone but myself. So at the outset, here is my intention for the post: I want to “tell the truth in love” about both myself and others. I want to “name it claim it tame it” as one of my peers says (thank you, you know who you are).

I am somewhat surprised that the most difficult part of this experience for me, to date, has had to do with human relations with Peace Corps trainees. I shouldn’t be a surprise, of course, as I’ve had some trouble with human relations in the past. (I don’t know whether I have more trouble with this than average, less, or about the same. I only know that sometimes I struggle with it.) In this case I’m finding that establishing “reliably positive social interactions” with some trainees is a lot easier than with others. (Again, there’s no news there. That’s life. Still, I hope to understand myself and my circumstances better through reflection so I’m plowing into this.)

There are younger trainees and older trainees, and some parts of the training experience are similar for them and some parts may be different. With a few exceptions, of course, it’s been easier to relate with older trainees. (I’ll discuss some beautiful exceptions in another post, I think, maybe.) The higher success rate with older trainees seems to be, in part, because we have some commonalities from living in the world through common experiences – that is, we have shared memories even though we’ve never met. It’s easy for us to make reference to something like a song that was popular in the 60s or a news event or even a perspective that was shared by a lot of people at some time in the past. This bridge is not available to me with younger trainees.

So part of what I’m experiencing is the lack of bridges that might help me relate with younger trainees. This could also be called a new awareness of how out of touch I am with popular culture. That’s not news, either, of course. I am not a big TV watcher, and each generation has its favorite music and media that may not appeal to older generations. So younger trainees are similarly able to bond easily with each other via their shared experiences, and my experience set doesn’t match as well. Fair enough.

There is also probably an element of developmental differences, which I don’t understand. Being older has shifted my priorities somewhat, just comparing the person I was years ago to the person I am now. That’s adaptive—changes come when older ways of addressing problems and addressing our environment don’t work well enough. I may be delusional in this but I think in some situations it’s easier for an older person to shift from one way of addressing a concern to another, based on a “toolkit” with more successful problem solving experiences to draw on. Still, I’ve seen us be less flexible, too, so this supposed advantage is a modest advantage limited to some settings. Among the younger trainees the corresponding strength may be their willingness to take risks. Problem solving strategies may not work (for any of us) and our younger trainees may be more likely to surge forward anyway, which sometimes pays off.

Again on the matter of developmental differences, I’m not saying older volunteers are at a net advantage, only that it would be helpful for me to understand any strengths that may be available to me. There are developmental differences and then by contrast there are differences that represent some of our individual brokenness, and perhaps older trainees also have the potential to be more broken than the younger trainees. I’m going to leave that one alone to get to the theme I’m sneaking up on.
I’m going to try to characterize the interactions that have been troublesome for me. (Perhaps the riff on older and younger was just me warming up on bland content.) Here I take a risk that I’m about to show my brokenness, while I’m thinking I’m about to talk about my humanness, so, um, would you please be accepting, dear reader? There have been some interactions that are mildly negative and that I’ve experienced like a bit of sand in my shoe: unfortunate but no big deal. These are data points for me, but wouldn’t have led me to want to sit down for an analysis in and of themselves. There have been a couple of times that I’ve been distinctly stressed, and in both cases I was surprised when it snuck up on me and I’m sorry to say that my personal weaknesses have played a part in my stress. So here they are, in general terms and as I experienced them (someone else may have interpreted the evidence differently, you would be entitled to your own interpretation of the evidence, but I cannot give you the evidence as I’m covering up who’s who). I had a series of “sand in the shoe” interactions with a trainee and was surprised to find myself in tears. I want to be accepted, and a series of rough exchanges suggested to me that I am not accepted in this case. Why tears? Why not acceptance on my part? Why wasn’t this a “water off a duck’s back” experience?

We have been told that our relationships within the PC Thailand 123 group will be very important to us, and that’s just a fact. The odds of reliably positive social interactions are certainly higher with folks from the US who share enough of our values to have also made the decision to give two years to Peace Corps than with members of the host nation’s communities with whom there will be some number of unavoidable cultural and language misunderstandings and limitations. We have good relations with host nationals, of course, but our source of excellent relations (at least for now with our feeble Thai language skills) is within the Peace Corps Thailand 123 community. Maybe I was grieving the assumed loss of one good resource, as this person may not be available to me as a part of my social system. I don’t want to give up on this person. I want good relationships with everyone in our group. I don’t know what I may have done to put myself into the category of “other” rather than the category of “one of us” with this person. And yet, I do know to some extent. My way of being is perhaps just odd enough from this the younger person’s point of view to be suspect. It may be that my benevolent qualities, such as they are, aren’t apparent through my sometimes rigid moments. It’s also likely that what the “sand in the shoe” moments looked like to me isn’t what they looked like to the person. I’m trying to build good relationships with all members of 123, and this trainee may be concentrating on fewer relationships. The moments may have intersected with moments that the trainee was absorbed in some other theme.

So. Given that I still want good relationships with as many 123s as possible, I feel this morning that I can accept that some relationships are smoother than others, this one may be more characterized by ups and downs and misunderstandings. I will be more intentional to listen to this trainee, so that I will be less vulnerable to making a negative assumption now and then. I will hope for opportunities to subtly demonstrate my potential as an ally.

I feel better.

The second case related to our professional tasks here and I was defensive in a situation where, if I could rewind, I would speak differently. So I’m headed down the path of looking at defensiveness. It has been a big problem for me in the past, has been less of a problem since I learned some things about the subject, and oops was back again. Why is it that in some cases I don’t have the problem and in other cases I do? How can I take my perspective from the situations where I respond appropriately and expand that to the situations where it rears its ugly head again?

One element at the core of my “crash and burn” experiences with defensiveness has been expectations that didn’t match reality. My metaphor is to the childhood experiences where we set out to do something positive and somehow it turned into a negative. Here are two examples from my childhood. In the first, at about age 4, I noticed that the milk that the milkman left at the front door had arrived and I wanted to carry it in and put it in the refrigerator. But the bottle was very cold so I carried it by the paper cap which, of course, slipped off and the bottle fell to the floor and broke. I was in trouble for breaking the bottle, when I had set out to do something good and helpful. In the second case we were camping in Yosemite (as usual, two weeks of every summer in the same campground) when an old prospector happened by with his mule. Mom and Dad chatted with the prospector and I was fascinated by the mule. I knew that when I meet a new dog I should give the dog a chance to smell the back of my hand before I attempt to pet the dog, and let the dog decide whether I get to do that. So I extended my hand to the mule’s nose for it to smell my hand. Suddenly there was a commotion as what I had done was WRONG WRONG WRONG. It turns out that behavior with a mule suggests you have something tasty in your hand and I was at risk of losing one or several fingers if the mule went for the snack that wasn’t there. It hurts worse to be corrected when we’ve made a special effort to do what’s right and good. It feels unjust and experiencing injustice can rile a person up. Meanwhile, the problem can also be characterized as coming from a wrong expectation.

Okay, so now my topic is expectations and how to negotiate them effectively, and I will then return to defensiveness. PC trainers have emphasized a way to get through cross-cultural stress-points by thinking about the other person’s intentions. Even if we don’t like whatever-it-is-that’s-happening we can be pleasant about it if we realize that the person’s intentions are good. I have made this same point in my work in teacher education as follows: we judge ourselves based on our intentions and we judge others based on their actions. That isn’t fair, and the adjustment to make is perhaps to judge ourselves slightly more based on our actions but primarily to judge others more based on their intentions. (Please set aside the fact that I used the term “judge” in that, we can discuss that later.)

When my expectations are farthest from reality I am most susceptible to the startle reaction. I do my worst thinking (no thinking-just reacting) and some of my least effective coping when I’m startled. I try to avoid being startled by preparing for situations and events, but sometimes it occurs anyway. (For example, I attended an Alzheimer’s Disease caregivers’ support group to hear other folks’ experiences so that I would be less startled when my Mom’s condition deteriorated, but I still had to struggle for words when she told me she wasn’t my mother.)

In the recent case I set out to do something good (worked hard at it, by the way), someone didn’t note my good intentions only a negative aspect of my product, and I was so startled that I didn’t notice this person’s good intentions, only the negative aspects. Sigh. Train wreck. Defensiveness returned. I recovered relatively well, I think, after the initial collision of expectations, but it would have been far better to have avoided the defensiveness.

So is there a generic preparation to avoid being startled? Yeah. No. Both. It will happen, but I’ll wager I can decrease the intensity by taking a slightly different perspective. I can do better on expectations when I set them intentionally (rather than backing into a situation). I can do better on defensiveness by noting that folks may not be interested in my good intentions. The only real antidote to that is to be more aware of other folks’ good intentions.

Perhaps I could have titled this blog post “the intersection between personal development and personal brokenness.”

Still. I feel better being able to set a direction for better human relations.

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11 Responses to Human Relations at Preservice Training

  1. Kristen Norton says:

    Hi Pat–Perhaps you will indulge me as I reflect a bit on some things you said in this post, and perhaps on some you didn’t say, some things that might be below the surface of your musings… My thoughts, only having met you at the end of last May… You greeted me heartily, along with so many others at BCUCC. I think the thing that stood out to me the most and that may connect with what you are speaking of, was a bit of in-your-face-ness. Questions asked to begin a conversation, but abrupt, nearly aggressive, almost off-the-wall, and for me, a quiet-ish person, I found that a bit off-putting. I laughed them off and learned how to answer or not answer, but the questions, the manner of the asking did not invite confidences or intimacy… Re-reading this I am thinking that there is a very real possibility that you might simply dismiss my thoughts, but stay with me for a moment… some ideas, some thoughts…perhaps work, very intentionally, on being quiet for a while, not weirdly so, but you could work on being the second one to speak, not the first, being very intentional about listening, listening carefully without at the same time thinking about what you want to say, working on being very present to the other person and their thoughts. Write yourself a list of the banal social conventions–pay attention to how others begin and continue conversations and write them down. Look at them and ask yourself why people use them–are they welcoming? how do they feel? what do they ease between people? Listen especially to someone quiet, creating relationship by listening, perhaps even thinking of listening as a spiritual practice… These are things I work on myself; I know whereof I speak, not feeling comfortable with small-talk, learning about building relationships; I share my thoughts in the spirit of a traveler on the road…
    hugs to you, Kristen

  2. Lew says:

    I am just a reader, a bystander, if you will.
    Wow to Pat and wow-wow to Kristen.
    Both well written explorations of internal workings.
    As for this reader, I am left with lots to ponder.
    All the better to have in mind while preparing to serve.

  3. Tom says:

    Pkeig and Kristen have both given me much to think about. As an older volunteer, we have been cautioned that generational gaps may lead to some uncomfortable situations for both ourselves and our younger counterparts. This is a well-known situation in the PC. Although there is much to be learned through introspection and applying strategies for self-improvement, I think it is important to be yourself. To deny who you are in a feeble attempt to have others like you (or even tolerate you) can ultimately lead to a lot of unhappiness and even higher stress levels. Kristen offers solid advice that we can all learn from and practice in our daily encounters with others. However, it must be sincere and natural and my only advice is to continue to be yourself, but employ some or all the advice Kristen has given you and us. This means recognizing who you are and what works and what doesn’t and what comes natural and fulfills you. It is also recognition that some love us in life and others don’t. The ones that love us are attracted to who we are and what we project, both good and bad. Above all, be yourself Pkeig and recognized that most fail when they have to adapt to expectations of others that contrast with who you really are. Having said that, Kristen’s advice is applicable to all of us. Finally, realize that you are on an incredible journey full of wonder and stress. Choose what you are going to worry about carefully. You are with others during training, but ultimately this is a very personal and private experience.
    As a side note, you write wonderfully and your insight is very interesting. I suspect Kristen’s advice to give the other guy a chance to show their insight to you will show you that others are interesting as well.
    Best wishes on an incredible journey to help others and to represent all of America.

    • pkeig says:

      Thanks very very much. I had guessed that writing a blog could lead to challenges and stretching, I hadn’t guessed I’d also be encouraged by folks I’ve never met.
      Tom, I thank you for “be yourself” and I agree, (all the while trying to be my better self… ) Friends and other folks can help me face in a constructive direction, and what I choose to do with it or what I can do with goes back to that matter that I am who I am. All the best to you, Tom.

  4. Tom says:

    Have things improved for you in this area?

  5. pkeig says:

    Yes, thanks for asking. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow we’ve been having mid-training language skills assessments, and all efforts have been on that for a few days. My interview was today. We’ll have our results on Saturday, and of course more work on language until the time comes to qualify. Once past the interview, the teaching challenges rise in importance. So energy goes from one thing to another, and the supportive, energizing, challenging, and soothing relationships play their roles day by day. My Mom used to talk about groups as having a predictable pattern at the outset: forming, storming, norming, and performing. I don’t think that’s an original formulation, but it applies here. We’ve settled into some familiarity and have plenty of productive partnerships: practicum, language study, socializing. On the self-development front maybe there’s an analogy to being a cancer patient: once a person has had cancer it’s important to keep watching and checking periodically. My defensiveness is like that, maybe. And then Kirstin’s themes are like the contextual factors that intensify or mitigate matters. Anyway, my energy goes where it’s needed which includes some for the human relations issues, but mostly energy is going to the tasks at hand.
    Again, thanks!

  6. Lew says:

    Is your mother a therapist, social worker, or a community organizer? “Forming, storming, norming and performing” is among the professional jargon we use.

    I am one of the older nominees awaiting an invitation. So, if Tom is still reading your postings, I would appreciate knowing where he is serving and if he would mind letting me know how I might be able to read his journal.

    You sound as though you have already made considerable positive adjustments. Please keep posting and continued best wishes to you.

  7. pkeig says:

    Hi, Lew,
    Mom was a community organizer! She was up to her neck in AAUW and League of Women Voters, Santa Clara County Coalition for Choice, and some others. She was a magnificent example of what volunteerism can contribute to community, and part of a way of life that’s fading from the scene. She lived with me for five years, with Alzheimer’s and eventually she didn’t recognize my name, relationship to her, or my face. At that point I called my brother and said, “she needs care but she doesn’t need me any more” and now she’s in a facility near my brother and I’m in Peace Corps. She also definitely needs night staff. She taught me so much. There will be quotations from her often as she is part of me now in my having learned values, style, tools, and trivia from her. Thanks for asking!
    Also, I sent Tom and email encouraging him to come back and give us that blog link.
    Best regards,

    • Tom says:

      Hi. Pat and Lew.
      First, another compliment to Pat. I just love the way you write. Very insightful. Like Lew says, you sound like you are adjusting very well and are enjoying the experience.
      Also, the fact that you took care of your mother says a lot about you.
      At this time I do not have a journal or blog. I am debating on whether to start one. I am also an “older” volunteer and will be going to Botswana April 1 – finally! Lew – I hope you receive your invitation soon.
      I have spoken to older volunteers and there are definite challenges an “older volunteer” faces. I have tried to find any advice in these journals and Pat’s journal has been helpful. I don’t foresee major problems, but I would like to ensure my experience is the best possible by being attentive to possible issues in advance.
      Pat – keep up the good work and forge ahead.

  8. Lew says:

    Hi Pat & Tom,

    Pat, I can only echo what Tom said regarding how the care you gave your mother says a lot about you. Additionally, the fact that you are carrying on her “values, style, tools, and trivia” says a whole lot about both of you as well as your relationship. Thank you for your responses and also for contacting Tom regarding my interest in his PC experiences and views. I look forward to reading more postings from you.

    Tom – I’d be lying if I said that I am not a little disappointed to learn that you have not maintained a PC Journal and I encourage you to consider doing so. While enduring the “big wait,” there was a time when I thought (hoped?) I would receive an invitation to Botswana. So, I wish the best for you and would like to hear about your experiences there.

    Hearing from more ‘seasoned’ applicants and current volunteers, such as you two, is not only a great way for me to gain additional insight into the whole PC process, but I am also reinforced in my feeling that I am better prepared in all ways because of having an extensive career behind me than I would have been had I entered the PC after graduate school as I had considered doing back then.

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