How To Talk About Things That Are Hard to Talk About
How to talk about the things that are most difficult? Choose one or more answers that apply.
A. Don’t. Keep it inside, and when a thought that pains or confuses you comes across your mind, wave it away like a fly.
B. Talk about it haphazardly. Talk about it when you don’t mean to, with people you don’t know or trust, and say things that you didn’t realize you thought, accidentally and without intention. Take the consequences and regret.
C. Talk about it awkwardly. Start to talk about it, then change your mind and see how the conversation partner responds. If they want to talk about the weather, sports, or a TV show, take it as a signal that they’re not ready, either. Talk about the weather, sports, or a TV show so neither of you has to act awkward in public. Or keep pushing until they hang up or become angry or stonewall. Feel sad that they won’t engage.
D. Talk about it thoughtfully. Mull your feelings over for a while first, write about it privately, decide how to open the topic and with whom you feel safe discussing it. Resolve not to become offended or hurt but to instead take new information in, like you’d feel a fabric before deciding to try it on. Feel grateful when the person(s) responds with thoughtfulness back, validating your feelings and telling you what they think. Feel more connected, trusting, and less alone.
There are so many topics that we would all like to pretend don’t hurt us. Catastrophic climate change, sexist family members, racism and police brutality, end of life decisions, second weddings, our personal writing. What are the consequences for not talking? Are they worse than trying B-D and going from there?
Gender Differences ~ A Tender Topic
“Of course, addressing the learning gap between boys and girls will require parents, teachers and school administrators to talk more openly about the ways each gender approaches classroom learning—and that difference itself remains a tender topic.”
— Enrico Gnaulati, Atlantic article, 9/18/14, “Why girls tend to get better grades than boys do”
This article mentions my research on gender differences in school readiness. It also draws attention to a couple of important ideas that are harder to work into a scientific journal article.
1. The learning environment–including adult expectations for children’s intelligence, performance, and behavior–shapes a lot of what students do. We all like the idea that we are in control of our actions. But lots of research shows otherwise. Especially for young children, their behavior and choices are largely determined by the opportunities around them. Sometimes these are called “affordances” which essentially means that the environment offers or affords certain choices and prohibits others.
I don’t have a pool in my house, so if I want to swim, I have to change my environment. A child who is never given a chance to play the cello, or to use oil paints, or to speak a certain language, can never show you what they are capable of in that area. The environment is just not set up for them to show you what they can do. And if some children–many of them boys–do their best work in a high-energy environment with lots of opportunities for movement, then they will look like failures in a system that requires docile, cooperative, and organized behavior.
2. The environment affects everyone. As far as I know, there are no exceptions to this rule. No group is less affected by their environment than others. A good example of how the environment can be manipulated to influence behavior is the studies on stereotype threat. This is the idea that the negative stereotypes that others hold about our group can affect our performance in a high-stakes situation where we care about the outcome. A long line of research has shown that every type of individual–no matter their age, gender, race or ethnic group, food preferences, toenail polish color, make/model of their car* can be made to worry that their performance on a test will be bad and that the bad performance will confirm others’ negative ideas about them and their group. All that is needed is a comment–a short little sentence–drawing the person’s attention to that negative stereotype.
*OK, I give in. The last few have not been studied.
In schools today, I wonder about the unexamined expectation that many teachers and parents have that boys will behave badly. I’ve overheard countless comments from teachers, future teachers, parents, and researchers like “boys will be boys,” “you know boys,” “boys are so much worse than girls,” and on and on. It’s true that boys are genetically more vulnerable than girls–males lack part of a chromosome that females have, after all–but these comments help perpetuate a socially-acceptable form of prejudice and disrespect. This anti-male mindset also adds fuel to the fire that burns away boys’ sense of self-worth and agency, their sense of belonging in this world. We don’t need more of those toxic messages for any group, even the group that has historically dominated society.
3. Gender differences are extremely difficult to talk about. I was appalled when I went from Dr. Gnaulati’s article, which offered constructive approaches to closing the “behavior gap” in gender, to the comments about the article. Almost immediately the individuals commenting devolved into anti-male and anti-female rhetoric and name-calling. I guess I was surprised because the research I’ve done in this area makes me forget how strongly people feel about their own gender’s legitimacy and the other gender’s faults. But this disrespectful set of comments also made me realize–we’re all flawed and we all get defensive when a group to which we belong is threatened. And, as the cast of Avenue Q well knows, we each have our own biases.
Maybe it’s too much to hope that we could set aside our defensive feelings and biases when figuring out how to support our children in school. Barring some apocalyptic event that wipes out one gender (which Carolyn O’Neal has written a novel about), our students will always need to learn to cooperate and respect women, men and the growing number of people who do not identify with either category. But even so, I will persist in trying to have the delicate conversation with an open mind, and a sense of respect for every child who is trying to learn in this tough world, and for the many wonderful individuals who are trying to teach them. We’re all in this together.
UVa BOV: We Need Transparency in Communications
I’m moving out of my apartment this Father’s Day weekend, so I have no business blogging. But the events at the University of Virginia (UVa), my employer for the last 5 years, are too exciting to ignore. On Sunday, the Governor-appointed Board of Visitors announced their surprise decision to fire Theresa Sullivan after only 2 years as UVa’s first female president (not a splendid, ice-cream-truck-type “surprise” but more like a corporate takeover, coup, or nighttime dealing by a secret society, of which UVa has many).
There has been excellent journalism on the situation, though little concrete information has been offered by the Board of Visitors. I particularly liked this Slate article, by a UVa faculty member, for summarizing what seems like the main issue – I’ll give you one guess – money and how places like universities get it in a recession.
Here’s the part that’s of interest for this blog and my interest in honesty and growth: the lack of transparency in the Board’s actions. In the most concrete terms I can manage, the Board’s mistakes were 1) replacing a president who was enormously popular with virtually the entire university community, 2) for no clear reason, 3) and without informing anyone else at the university before doing so.
These layer upon other problems, which are ethical, philosophical, existential, financial and (probably, for good measure), psychological. But I’m supposed to be packing. So, just two more things:
1. Since I have been at UVa, much has been made of “The Community.” As in, what is the definition of a community, is UVa a community, and how can we help people who feel like it isn’t feel like it is? I participated in an event following Yeardley Love’s death called Day of Dialogue, which brought together staff and students from across the university to communicate honestly about sensitive issues that most people don’t talk about at work, such as racism, sexism, cronyism, hierarchies, how UVa relates to the non-UVa Charlottesville, community, mental health, communicating with one’s supervisors, and religion. (The UVa Day of Dialogue has no connection that I am aware to the Focus on the Family’s Christian-oriented Day of Dialogue).
I came away from the Sullivan-supported Day of Dialogue, which was actually several 1.5-hr sessions, with a greater optimism about UVa being a place where open communication is possible. In my group, there was impressive diversity in age, though somewhat less diversity in gender and race/ethnicity. Women especially seem to dig this sort of group activity. The point of the group was talking, and we spent the first session establishing how to listen and respond to people whose opinions and values differ from one’s own. Still, I met a UVa Groundskeeper, a head of Dining Services, undergraduate students, and non-education faculty members whom I never would have encountered otherwise. Participating helped me decide that a community is a place where people attempt to – at the risk of being redundant – communicate with one another about issues that matter to them. It was one of the UVa activities that I felt proudest to be a part of, even after three years with a research team whose work inspires and uplifts me.
2. Shame on you, Board of Visitors, for being so secretive about a decision that affects so many members of the UVa community. You have corrupted a tradition of open communication that universities and their members aspire to. You have shocked a community that, if not always succeeding, is trying to be one of those places where people talk about things that matter to them and to others. I’m sure you have your reasons and, if you were willing or able to articulate them, they may even make sense to people who are not in your privileged position. But the way you went about removing our president was shameful. The way you went about it casts doubt on your ability to serve on the Board and your ability to represent the diverse interests of an intellectual, yes, financial, yes, but ultimately social community.
As you undoubtedly know, humans are inherently social creatures. We need each other. We need to be able to tell the truth to each other, even if the news is difficult. So I recognize that you, Board members, are also human. And maybe your news was tough, maybe it was “look, folks, your beloved UVa is going under if we don’t do something drastic like offer online degrees.” Or maybe it was “Gosh, I don’t know how we’re going to be able to pay out your retirement benefits.” Maybe it was, “Faculty, we have to get you to bring in more grant money or teach more classes because the state is just not helping us out very much,” or “We need undergraduates to pay more tuition than they can afford because our funds are drying up” Or maybe it was – gasp – “Time to let go of some staff who are taking advantage of the system,” or “What if we reduce your hours?” or – God save us all – “We think the only option besides firing 20% of UVa employees is to sell millions more university brand t-shirts.”
If those are the options, let’s talk about them. While we may not be wealthy land developers or political appointees, we are adults and we can handle it. We know that our country and our state and its institutions are pressed for cash. And we can certainly handle/face/confront/resolve (or whatever business-school lingo you would like to use), the problem a lot better if you communicate about it, instead of doing urgent backroom dealings without consulting anyone with an opinion other than your own.
The way you went about removing our president suggests you have little respect for openness, honesty, or due process. And so, to use your own words, would it be too much to ask that we “mutually agree” on your collective resignation?