We can smell fear about as well as dogs and bees can. (Thanks for the reference, little boy from Jerry Maguire!) Face it, if you’re in a conversation with a person who seems nervous, you probably feel awkward and are searching for a way to end the conversation and politely move on with your day. It’s uncomfortable.
I ran into a past student recently with her parent and had a great conversation with them. It was a wonderful experience that left us all smiling as we parted company. I used to have a different experience in running into parents and students though. Seeing a student or parent outside of work was a somewhat awkward experience for me. Should I approach them? Should I pretend that I don’t see them? What if they want to corner me with question about school that may be awkward to answer? These questions would roll through my head as if they were on a highlight reel of what-ifs. Our culture has a way (particularly in the school system) of driving fear into us. The same can be true of client relationships in a business.
Traditional organizational management systems (and schools are no exception) tend to be very top down. All too often, the structure is perpetuated through fear. In the school example, teachers (employees) are afraid of the principal (manager); principals are afraid of the superintendent (CEO); and all of the above are afraid of the parents (investors and clients), or at least the law suits they are capable of bringing down onto the district (company). Particularly in a school system, staff tend to be very careful about how they behave and what they say, out in public. We’re warned about the abundance of lawsuits and of the personal damages some unfortunate teachers have been forced to pay. Though the education budget in my state has seen a recent swing for the better, we live under the threat of a swing in the opposite direction. We also deal with large class sizes, and changing standards/programs/laws/timelines/protocols/procedures, etc…. The list goes on, school systems often cultivate a culture of fear among staff. Perhaps there is a good reason. There is a certain measure of CYA (cover your ass) going on for sure which is necessary in our highly litigious times. Education is certainly not the only profession where we find this response. This attitude builds fear in people, and people who act in fear, at best, relate awkwardly with others.
Some would argue that continuously reminding ourselves of these pitfalls and consequences builds continued awareness of what could happen if we slip up or become lazy. Awareness is extremely important, but we simply cannot live in that fear. Living with fear and anxiety is being proven more and more to cause a multitude of chronic illnesses including heart disease. Higher levels of cortisol in the body from stress is being linked to inflammation and other related health problems. Sitting in staff meetings, I often feel that we all just need to chill out a bit.
The more I grow, the more I realize that there is little to fear. In any moment, we can only act on what we feel is best based on our accumulated experience. Typically, that is enough. If we lack the skills or information we need, we can reach out to others with experience or build the skills we need (the best way to build skill, by the way, is by performing the skill you hope to learn).
In the past, buried under the weight of fear, I’ve found myself quite uncomfortable while talking with parents and even students out in the community. It’s often felt like a game of hiding my flaws. In truth however, our flaws are part of what make us human and relatable to the people around us. We don’t need to make ourselves smaller (or bigger) than we truly are. What we are, right now, is enough. I am more and more convinced that a happy life begins with two things. First, let go of fear (don’t let fear influence your thoughts in an unhealthy way). Second, see the world from the perspective of love, acceptance and appreciation.
“Love Is Letting Go of Fear” by Gerald G. Jampolsky, MD is a great little book on this topic that I recommend for further reading in this area. It’s been around for a while, but the message is timeless. The book has been liberally borrowed from by contemporaries in the genre. It’a a simple look at the power of living in the moment. The premise is that we are responsible for our present circumstances, and can, at any moment, change our path and choose a more positive experience for ourselves and others around us.
We choose our reality in every moment. In the recent exchange with the student and parent I ran into, the conversation was made much more natural and meaningful by choosing to let go of the fear.