Shut Up!

I bet you’re reading because these words provoked you.  I’m sure if you haven’t heard this exact phrase, you’ve felt it, or maybe even said it.  It’s a lot easier to hear yourself think and to say what you need to say when everyone follows these orders.  I can’t honestly say that I’ve never thought them, but I can say that I’ve never said them.  “Shut up” was not allowed in my house growing up.  Why? It’s hurtful to be told shut up.  It directly tells a person that what they are saying is bad, annoying, wrong, messy, and other negative ideas.

When we think about how we want to be treated (uh-hum…the “Golden Rule”…) we certainly do not want to hear this.  So why is that people in power tend to default to these kinds of phrases?  They feel challenged and they can’t think of anything else to say?  They think what they have to say is more important?  They don’t have time to listen to others’ thoughts/concerns?  All of this is unfortunately true, and more!  The underlying issue that when a person gains power and influence, they feel entitled to exert that power over whoever they deem to be below them.  Why?  Because that’s probably how they were taught.  I don’t think anyone had to tell us that this is how you gain control, but we learn it from observing those who had power over us.  Maybe it worked out well for us.  Somehow we made it to a place of power.

I have observed this type of communication from MANY people of power.  Students who feel empowered often try to gain power over other students this way.  Often, they are attempting to do the right thing, and sometimes it produces the desired effect (everyone shuts up).  However, in the process, what they are creating is not order, but rather fear.  In a student’s world, it’s usually fear of social abandonment.  In a professional setting, it usually produces fear and anxiety about the worth of your thoughts.  In a public setting it can produce oppression and hopelessness.  By silencing others, many leaders gain a false sense of effectiveness, but often nurture a greater sense of insecurity because the effects often lead to less positive feedback as well.

So what do you do in a situation of chaos?  It would be nice if leaders were always able to avoid chaos by leading by example (listening to everyone, remaining calm, reciprocal positive feedback and challenging ideas).  We all know this is nearly impossible to sustain 100% of the time.  It would also be ideal if leaders were able to simply ask for order and followers comply, but this is problematic when emotions are involved, which they often are.  So…what to do?

I am no expert, by any means, and I sometimes fail at maintaining order, but I find that most of my students value my approaches (and the approaches of many other great, understanding teachers) so I thought I would share just a few of my “best practices”:

  1. “Be here, now.”  This is an exercise I learned last semester in Tai Chi.  It is a meditation that doesn’t take very long, but provides almost immediate success most of the time.  First, have students close their eyes (seated, or preferably lying down), lower the lights to the safest level of dark, and have them notice their breathing.  Next, have them bring focus to their thoughts.  Instruct them not to judge or try to change their thoughts, and try to stay focused only on the thoughts they are having in that specific moment.  Give them adequate time to think (about a minute to two minutes), then shift focus to their physical body.  Have them notice any muscle soreness or tightness.  Instruct them not to try to change or judge their bodies in that moment but to just become aware.  Finally, do the same with their emotions.  Make sure they are focused only on their current emotional state without trying to change or judge them.  Next have them mentally acknowledge that they are there (in that room) with their thoughts, and others are there with their thoughts.  Do the same with bodies and emotions.  Finally, I have added another step.  I have them imagine all of their thoughts, physical feelings, and emotions as balloons.  
  2. They imagine that they are holding a handful of balloons each with a different feeling or thought on it.  Then they can choose which balloons to keep and which to release.  They do not have to let go of negative balloons unless they want to.  They imagine the balloons floating up into the air, until they are no longer visible.  This is a 5-10 minute exercise that is worth stopping whatever you are doing to complete.  When students return (mentally) to the room, they often feel rested and lighter.  Even if they are holding onto to something negative, they are able to deal with it a little better now that they have identified everything that they are experiencing and acknowledged that others are experiencing their own “balloons”.  Try it once.  If it works, keep it!
  3. Stop what you’re doing and listen.  If you let people share their problems, you can better assess what the roots are.  In many cases, they are harboring something totally unrelated to you.  From there, you can ask for them to try to let those issues go and move forward with the task.  If not, you can offer them an “out” to discuss the issues with someone else.
  4. Share your own emotions.  Why is it that you are feeling frustrated?  By explaining how the behavior is affecting you, you are allowing students an opportunity to understand another perspective that they probably haven’t considered.  Also, it gives the leader the chance to reflect on whether or not the frustrations are reasonable, valid, and/or coming from a place of control.
  5. Apologize when you’re wrong.  This is a common suggestion, but it’s rarely used.  I apologize all the time.  I hate it!  I hate to be wrong!  But I also hate to be unfair or hurtful and when I am, I feel bad.  Even if I don’t apologize in the moment, I make a point to do it at the next opportunity.  I don’t always explain why I was so mad/frustrated, because sometimes it isn’t related to those people, but I try to show that even if I was right in how I was feeling, I was wrong for what I said or did.
  6. Wait.  I hate this one too, because I know that if they would just listen we could get to something more fun/interesting, but if I bulldoze them, their work will be lower quality and then I will ultimately be even more frustrated.  I often inform classes/groups that they have the power to move faster or slower, and they will have to deal with getting less done.  This is particularly effective after a performance.  I never judge one class against another, but they are REALLY good at doing this and they often ask why they didn’t get to do something that another class did.  I am very honest in explaining that the other class was more focused, built trust (with me and each other) and therefore, the quality was increased.

These won’t work for everyone and I certainly did not invent any of these ideas.  I have learned from some of the best teachers I know and I truly care about students as people.  In the end, it won’t matter if I taught every middle school dancer a pirouette, but it will matter to me if they quit taking dance because they felt they had no voice or that I only wanted to do what I wanted all the time.

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