What to do about the elephant in the room.
Gorillas in the Mirror
September 17, 2013
Several years ago, I facilitated a brainstorming session with a group of educators.  A first year teacher, Molly, offered up an idea and Judith, a veteran teacher, let out an audible “hmm.” Molly stopped short, looked at Judith, and burst into tears.
This single interaction revealed a deeper current in the organization.  For years, newer teachers were advised to watch what they said around veteran teachers because senior staff was “jaded and critical.”  Though Judith later explained that she meant her “hmm” as an affirmation, Molly took it as a criticism, thus perpetuating the cultural dynamic.
This exchange underscores a simple truth: While our actions may carry the best of intentions, the impact of these actions, depending on the recipient’s teachings and experiences, may have an opposite effect.  In other words, good intentions do not always guarantee good results. 
In spite of my attempts to redirect, Judith and Molly continued exchanging barbs - Judith: “You shouldn’t be so sensitive.”  Molly: “You shouldn’t be so judgmental.”  A third individual offered that this sniping and mistrust would not change until the board and leadership dealt with the elephant in the room.  A fourth participant then snapped that real change only happens from the bottom up.
This interaction reminded me of a passage from the Buddhist nun and writer, Pema Chodron:
“Those events and people in our lives who trigger our unresolved issues are like messengers who show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck.  It’s as if you just looked at yourself in the mirror and you saw a gorilla…you try to angle the mirror…but no matter what you do, you still see a gorilla.  That’s (what it’s like) being nailed by life, the place where you have no choice except to embrace what’s happening or push it away.”
I asked the educators how many of them felt uncomfortable with what they saw.  They all raised their hands.  I then asked them to write down five things they could do to take away the discomfort.  “Stay away from veteran teachers” and similar responses were among the first.  But as we got further down the list, people shared things like – “I could work on being less sensitive/judgmental.”  
The conversation shifted from the elephant in the room to the gorillas in the mirror.  What was this pattern now teaching them about themselves? Might it impact how they respond to the students who have bright - but dissonant ideas?  As we closed the meeting, one of the teachers remarked – “we always ask how we can change the world, but we rarely ask how we can change ourselves.”
A few weeks ago, I checked in with this client. Teachers reported that that meeting was a turning point.  “Mind you,” said Judith, “that was five years ago and it’s still not perfect.  But it’s a lot better.”  When I asked what their secret was, Molly said “It starts right here,” putting her hand over her heart.  “I realized that it was a lot easier to change me than to change Judith,” - a point to which Judith agreed.
When times get rough, start with the hard part and take an honest look in the mirror.  You may not like what you see, but in doing so, you open the door to solutions that before might have seemed like pipe dreams. We can do whatever we can imagine when we get out of our own way first. 


Elemental Partners cultivates healthy and prosperous organizations through clarity of purpose, alignment of principles, and integration of systems.

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Kevin will be presenting a session on Transcultural Leadership in San Jose on September 20th for the California Health Care Foundation fellows.

Kevin and Pua contracted with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi to facilitate their staff retreat.  Check out their good work at www.winterinstitute.org

Kevin will be meeting with the staff of YouthCare at their residences for homeless youth throughout Seattle. Check out their good work at www.youthcare.org


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