Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Savoring a Soft Landing

I lost a student recently.

While there is always sadness and a sense of failure that accompanies such occasions, there was also something to celebrate and I want to share that story.

Not all people are meant to do things together, and there are definite limits to how widely you can dance with the muse of inclusivity before the circle is too wide and the bonds too diluted to sustain you through travail. There is considerable delicacy in knowing where that boundary is and how to examine it with compassionate and authenticity.

The student in question (whom I'll call Robin) is a hard worker and has lived a life clearly dedicated to promoting community. At the same time, Robin identifies with a diagnosis of ADD (attention deficit disorder) and has presented a challenge for every group they've been a part of. Robin doesn't pick up social cues easily and often inserts themselves into conversations with an energy that is not congruent with what they have to contribute--which simultaneously is disruptive to what others are saying and makes it hard to understand their point.

Robin has accomplished much over a lifetime and has a lot to offer, yet they rarely wait for an invitation before offering their perspective. When speaking, Robin will often offer details that are aren't germane to the consideration, thereby elongating a statement that wasn't necessarily welcome or appropriate to begin with. On top of that, when these tendencies are pointed out, Robin typically has no qualms about pushing back, ratcheting up the tension level. In short, Robin is a handful.  

Going the other way, Robin sometimes has valuable insights about problem solving, and has been a good role model for speaking up for what they needed.

Drawn to facilitation training in the hope that they'd have more success being a resource to cooperative groups, it wasn't being an easy fit.

In particular we had two incidents where Robin was an outside facilitator in the context of the training and both times they were unable to resist offering unsolicited advice about how the group should handle the issue being discussed. Both times the group didn't like what Robin did (essentially violating the facilitator's neutrality by wading into content without portfolio) and we made sure that Robin got the feedback.

Chafing under that restriction, Robin reflected on the dynamic and came to the conclusion that facilitation was not their calling. What Robin really wanted was to be a consultant.

In some ways, Robin's confusion about those two roles can be laid at my feet. As a professional consultant it's relatively common that I'll be hired both as a facilitator and as a resource to offer expert advice about the choices group weigh during problem solving. (There is often interest in hearing about what other groups have done when facing similar circumstances and I often have knowledge about that.)

Robin had seen me serve in the capacity on a number of occasions and was having difficulty accepting that I was allowed to do something that they weren't. Even though this was laid out up front and we never pretended it would be another way, Robin nonetheless chafed at the dual standard.

The key part of this story though is not that there was difficulty, and not that Robin resigned from the training; it was that Robin reported how relieved they were that the separation was not acrimonious. Even though it seemed awkward to me (and to other students), we had been trying to make it work. We gave Robin straight feedback when coloring outside the lines. We listened to what they were saying and acknowledged their contributions. When things went well, we made sure to honor that. When Robin asked for special treatment, we took it one request at a time, negotiating as we went.

Life has been rocky for Robin, and it's humbling that the more humane treatment they received in the class—bumpy as it was—stood out in sharp contrast with the way it usually plays out for a demonstrative person struggling to cope with ADD. Even though it's not possible to achieve laminar flow with all configurations, and sometimes the turbulence is unacceptable, this was a good reminder that the effort to give everyone a try is worth the stretch, and what seems bitter to some can be perceived as sweet to others. When you're used to seeing the glass half empty, a mouthful of water can be surprisingly nourishing.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

While I understand the desire to protect "Robin's" identity, I think it would be an easier read to substitute "s/he" and "his/her" for "they" and "their".