Who are our teachers

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Who Are Our Teachers?

I recall this day so clearly because it changed my life. At the time, I was not aware of the event's impact, and I am sure that the others involved had no idea that over time it would mean so much to me. It was really quite an everyday occurrence. I was 10 years old and my mom and I were at the checkout line at the A&P grocery store in Santa Barbara. We saw my Girl Scout Brownie leader, Mrs. Brimer, as she was leaving the store and she stopped to talk with us. She told my mom, "When we start a new activity, Sue often says that she can't do it. Then she proceeds to do it just fine. I wish that she would be more confident in her abilities."

Wow, I had no idea. I was surprised that Mrs. Brimer noticed how I reacted to new activities and that she had taken the time to talk to my mom about it. I hadn't thought about how I was behaving. So, I began to pay attention to the way I approached new projects. I discovered that I actually was good at doing a lot of different things, especially arts and crafts. I realized that I could be confident instead of scared to try new things. That is a big lesson to learn at 10 years old. Mrs. Brimer had shared a "blind spot" with me. She pointed out a way that I was thinking that was not helping me.

So often we don't realize when we are being a "teacher" or having an impact on someone else. Recently I was visiting my adult niece and she was showing me her new home. She said that she makes an effort to put things away after she uses them and that she learned this from me. I didn’t remember that this was something I had "taught" her. She was proud to tell me about this practice that she had learned from me.

Sometimes there are things that I want to teach or advice I want to give that the other person does not want to hear. For example, I have tried to teach my husband how to chop an onion. He doesn't want my advice. He wants to chop onions his own way. Why do I insist on telling him how to do it my way when clearly it bugs him? I have now stopped doing it. What made me stop? – a dose of my own medicine. I was visiting my dad after minor heart surgery and helping him with his household chores. One evening I was making dinner. He proceeded to instruct me on how to chop an onion properly. Well, that was my lesson. I realized how annoying it was to have someone else tell me how to chop when I had been doing it just fine for many years. At that moment I swore I would no longer advise my husband on onion chopping. I am sure there are other things he would like me not to advise him on too.

Personally I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.
-Winston Churchill

So what is the difference between offering a helpful lesson and giving unwanted advice? I think the answer is similar to how as a coach I work with clients. First off, the client is making a conscious decision to work on an aspect of their professional or personal life. They are ready to make a change or an enhancement in their life. This readiness is key. When I was 10 years old and my Brownie leader made a comment to my mom, I must have been ready to let go of an old way of thinking about myself. Did Mrs. Brimer know this? Did I ask her for feedback? No, but sometimes, the people closest to us may sense we are ready to hear something, or maybe she just gave it a try to see if it may be helpful. The client must also want to work on the area in question. My husband clearly was not interested (nor was I with my father) in learning a new way to chop an onion. There has to be a desire to change or learn a new skill or behavior.

The context is also important. I am sure that if I were at a cooking school in Italy, I would relish learning how to chop an onion in a new way from the teacher/chef. I also imagine that my mom had shared the same observation that Mrs. Brimer had made about my approach to new experiences, yet I hadn’t paid much attention to her comments.

I have noticed that often people are more open to hearing feedback from those outside of their immediate family members or closest colleagues at work. Sometimes this is due to the status they confer to the others or it may be the way the person shares the feedback. If an observation is said from a compassionate place and with understanding of the person and her circumstances, she is more apt to really hear it and take it in. A powerful question or an illustrative story or metaphor can open up the idea so that it is heard and experienced at a deeper level.

Most of us have blind spots – our ways of being and doing that do not serve us well. A trusted friend, coach or teacher can make all the difference in helping us to become aware of our blind spots and then identifying ways to make a change in our behavior.

© Sue Schleifer, 2007

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