TITLE: A Lesson Learned AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 16, 2006 4:28 PM DESC: ----- BODY: It's been so long since I wrote regularly here that I am starting to feel a sense of withdrawal. Rather than try to tackle a larger essay today, I'm going to ease my way back in with one small lesson I have learned this year while trying to be an effective department head. When I was a teenager, I read a science-fiction story about a man from Earth who traveled to a distant planet populated by folks who were mostly like us. They differed in one substantial way: they took on the emotions of those around them. When the Earth traveler was happy, so were the alien folks with whom he lived. When he was in a foul mood, they were, too. When he was sad, they, too became sad. The protagonist fell in love but ultimately had to leave the planet, because he could not bear to inflict his own moodiness and depressions on his lover, who seemed to suffer so much more than he did. No, I haven't developed supernatural empathic abilities, but I did learn the value of not being too sensitive. It's not good for my health, and surprisingly not good for those around me. The part about my health is pretty straightforward. In an administrative position, there are lots of people who depend on one's performance and who can become unhappy with results. Teachers always face this, through their students, but students are a remarkably resilient bunch. They are perhaps more used to not being in control of their worlds and so are less likely to cause a fuss when things don't go perfectly. Faculty and other administrators aren't always so happy-go-lucky. Don't get me wrong; it's not that faculty and administrators are more likely to complain. It's just that they depend on other folks in order to get their own work done and so are more sensitive to conditions that differ from expected. And they are more likely to be direct in their comments. Over a decade of participating in the software patterns community and its writers' workshop format, I've increasingly come to appreciate the value of providing positive and constructive feedback in a supportive way. I've been fortunate this year to have several colleagues who were willing to give me feedback about my performance that I need in order to get better. But a blunt listing of "here are things that haven't gone as well as we had hoped" can be quite a downer. It's easy to tell oneself not to be too sensitive; it's a much taller order not to be too sensitive. The ethos of writers' workshops is one of shared commitment to growth and so creates as supportive framework as possible in which to deliver suggestions. Luckily, I think I've avoided being defensive in the face of criticisms -- most of which are accurate, and the rest of which are at least understandable from the perspective of the speaker -- but that doesn't make the sound of them any less of a drag on the psyche. How does oversensitivity affect others? First of all, folks who are feeling down are less likely to do really good work for the team. Until my mood bounces back, I feel like a substandard performer. Second, oversensitivity creates a reluctance to open up so easily, which makes the person a less effective collaborator. I think I've been lucky to avoid this pitfall so far this year, but it requires conscious effort. I hope that I am able to fold this lesson back into how I give feedback to my colleagues and in the classroom. Constructive suggestions are more likely to help the hearer if they arrive in a supportive package. P.S. If you have any idea of the name or author of the story I described above, please drop me a note.) -----