Lately, I find myself more and more drawn to the people in our organizations who tell it like it is. People who don’t say it mean. But say it honest. The people who help us talk about the hard stuff, sometimes the elephant in the room, so we can get it out on the table because often it’s the unspoken that gets the way of our best work.
I used to think that these people were unflappable. That they didn’t get rattled. That they didn’t have their insides turned into knots when conflict was imminent. However, the more I’ve talked to people, the more I’ve come to realize that most of us don’t prefer confrontation.
The human species has relied on human bonds for survival, so when something feels like it is going to threaten those bonds, it’s easy to see our survival as threatened in some way. As Elena Aguilar explains in The Art of Coaching Teams, “Then there is the way our brains respond to perceived threats—they often overreact and flood our bodies with stress hormones that shut down our ability to think clearly; our brains send us into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Finally, many of us have never acquired the communication skills to deal with conflict—it’s just not something we’ve learned. Let me assure you that if conflict makes
you nervous, or if you avoid it at all costs, you’re very normal.”
And yet, conflict is necessary. If we don’t face the hard stuff, we can’t do big work together effectively. This need for truth-telling is what Chip and Dan Heath refer to ask “tripping over the truth.” And while it doesn’t always involve external conflict, it does involve being personally confronted by hard truths. The Heath brothers explain in so many words that if people don’t appreciate the problem, they can’t appreciate the solution. It’s one reason why so many change efforts fail miserably.
In their book, The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath describe it in this way, “Tripping over the truth is an insight that packs an emotional wallop. When you have a sudden realization, one that you didn’t see coming, and one that you know viscerally is right, you’ve tripped over the truth. It’s a defining moment that in an instant can change the way you see the world.“
Many of the defining moments that have changed the way I see the world in an instant have come from conversations with kids. These conversations feel less like conflict and more like intense curiosity about hard to hear truths. There are things I’ve heard from kids about their experiences that I can’t unhear, and as a result, I’ve been forever changed and compelled to make school a better place.
Here are just a few comments from high school students that have deeply impacted me:
“To recap, with the exception of a few subjects, my high school education has narrowed my thoughts and made me think more in a survival aspect of how to get an A rather than being purely engaged in the material like I was in middle school and elementary school.”
“The education system has been devastating to my academic confidence. Being so harshly graded and criticized for the past twelve years has obliterated my ability to be proud and confident of my work.”
“This fixation with numbers carried into my secondary education as I mulled over how my GPA, class rank, and ACT score distinguished me from my peers. At some times, it made me feel a false sense of superiority, while at others, it destroyed my sense of worth as a student. I am disillusioned with the idea that a person can be valued this way…I am under the impression that after fourteen years of schooling, the school district regards me as little more than a statistic. I feel as if I am nothing more than one of the two-hundred-eighty-two graduating seniors.”
Sometimes, we have to trip over the truth to be motivated into action. The above comments were part of the reason why we eliminated valedictorian and salutatorian in favor of a Latin Honors System. In the same school year, after listening to high school students talk and after examining the research on adolescent sleep patterns, we moved to later school start times.
When you’re motivated to do the right thing for kids for the right reasons, you can move big work and you can move it more quickly than you might think. It is almost always scary and difficult, but it’s also worth it. It’s a good kind of satisfying exhaustion. I live that for that kind of exhaustion.
Let’s be the kind of people who uncover the hard truths with deep listening and curiosity, so that alongside others, we can appreciate the problem. Together.
And then build and appreciate the solution.