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.