At the beginning of each new year, I like to reflect on the things I want to change or improve and then commit to working on them. This has been a lifelong process that I have found very rewarding. And I think it is a critical practice to take on in our personal development.
There is one interpersonal skill, which I call “showing up,” that I try to focus on whenever possible. It requires a skill set almost everyone struggles with from time to time. Yet, those who successfully master it are often quite effective in navigating difficult situations.
Woody Allen famously said, “80 percent of success is showing up.” Most people hear this quote and think of someone passively sitting at a meeting or standing quietly at a gathering. But, I think of someone “showing up” by putting her character on the line, face to face.
This multiple-choice question demonstrates my point:
Something has happened on campus that has left you feeling really frustrated, hurt, and/or angry. The anger is powerful, and it wants to spill out. You are seething. What do you do about it?
A) As the anger builds, explode.
B) Drown your feelings and be silent.
C) Vent to your friends.
D) Vent to the world by posting your thoughts anonymously somewhere.
E) Express your feelings directly to the responsible individual(s).
From personal experience, I know that the last option is often the hardest to muster the gumption for. Confronting someone directly can place us in an intimidating, uncomfortable, unknown situation. Options A through D may feel safer.
But, avoiding direct communication is a lousy way to get through life. Anger remains and festers. Misunderstandings grow deeper. Self-doubt becomes entrenched. When you speak out about what’s on your mind, you are honoring yourself, developing character, giving the other person an opportunity to clarify or re-evaluate, and practicing the most powerful skill any of us will ever acquire, ever. It takes practice and constant fine-tuning to be able to express oneself assertively, yet graciously.
I’d like to invite you to practice direct communication here at Middlebury and to work on making it your “default mode” for handling problems. Students will never again have four years in an environment such as this, where testing the waters, educationally and experientially, is so strongly supported. We try very hard to create an atmosphere that is conducive to open dialogue—that provides honest spaces for people to share their views and their personal feelings, no matter how unpopular.
We have had some difficult and some exhilarating experiences together this year, and through all of them, I have tried to make direct communication my default mode. I must confess that I am not always perfect with this, but I am constantly trying to be better at how I connect and communicate with students, faculty, and staff. I know that tensions sometimes run high when there is a challenging campus issue we are dealing with, and sometimes that results in students feeling frustrated with one another or with the administration. There are times when I could take the comfortable route by issuing a letter or sending an e-mail, but I often see great value in sitting down together, explaining a situation or decision, and being open to feedback—providing transparency and giving all involved an opportunity to be heard. In the end, I think everyone would agree that these conversations help diffuse hard feelings and build understanding.
So consider this: For the rest of this academic year, talk with your neighbors and use your voice, front and center. Let’s really talk. Let’s not simply tweet or leave anonymous notes and postings. Let’s have conversations. I learn every time students are willing to talk with me and with each other.
Will you talk? And if someone talks to you, will you listen and try to understand?
Let me know what you think and how we can all share more ideas, find solutions, build understanding, and show up with respect and openness.