That’s Perfectly Normal

By
Kay. C. Dee

I once announced to a psychologist that during that day’s session, we were going to play a game called “That’s Perfectly Normal.”  I would tell him something that I was thinking or feeling, and he would respond with “That’s Perfectly Normal!” and then describe why.  It was a reassuring (and entertaining) game, and I recently found myself playing the other side of this game with a colleague who has been leading a major curricular change effort.

In this short blog venue, I can’t fully describe the amount of energy, effort, collaboration, communication, and social/political capital that my colleague has invested in this change effort over the past two years.  As I am writing this post, their institution’s faculty assembly is preparing to vote on whether or not the change will be implemented.  As a change agent navigating their way through a great deal of peer judgement about their project, my colleague has been thinking and feeling a lot of Perfectly Normal things right now.  For example:

  • My change project is being held to standards that are far higher than are expected of any existing project.  I resent that.  Some of the people calling for additional assessments, information, and review processes sound hypocritical to me.
  • Others are using my change project as political leverage or a bargaining tool to try to achieve their own goals.  I am bewildered by this.  My project has nothing to do with Program X’s ability to hire an administrative assistant, or whether Program Y’s proposal for a second major is likely to be approved.  Why is my project being dragged into these discussions?
  • People with no expertise in the subject matter of my change are challenging my experiences in and mastery of that subject matter.  This makes me feel resentful and disrespected.
  • I’m being told that people who I thought supported me and the broad goals of my project are saying negative (and untrue!) things about me and my motivations for undertaking this project.  This is disappointing and painful.  I don’t want to get involved in gossip, but at the same time, I want people to think well of me and to understand my actual motives for this change.
  • People who aren’t aware of all the constraints I have been working under, and who have never championed a similar magnitude of change, are telling me that I should have handled things differently – and that if I had done so, I would not be experiencing the current level of consternation over the proposed change.  This frustrates me.  I think it’s meant to be helpful constructive criticism, but I guarantee that I did the best I could with what I had to work with.  At this point, I kind of just want these people to shut up!

The more we invest of ourselves in a change project, the easier it is to interpret evaluation of that change project as judgment of ourselves.  Feeling judged by one’s peers can be difficult.  For example, how many of the above sentiments (higher standards, political leverage, challenges to one’s level of expertise, rumors of gossip, helpful- not-helpful advice) have you expressed, or heard expressed, in regards to peer judgement of a promotion/tenure case?

All of the feelings articulated above are absolutely valid.  As I told my colleague, I don’t believe in ignoring or trying to suppress feelings (more on this will be forthcoming in a future blog post).  However, I do believe that we can deliberately reframe difficult situations by allowing our emotions and our logic to operate together, helping us navigate situations more gracefully while directing less negativity toward ourselves and others.  My colleague is good at this, as evidenced by our reframing of the above sentiments:

  • My change project is being held to higher standards.  I’ve decided to welcome this challenge. Honestly, I’d rather have higher standards for curricular changes than we have had in the past, and if my project can be part of setting a new standard for others to follow, so be it.
  • Others are using my change project as leverage/a tool to achieve their own goals.  I’ve decided to just let this go (sing along with Elsa!), since in my mind, my project really has nothing to do with those other goals.
  • People are challenging my subject matter mastery.  What a great opportunity for me to be an educator, and help broaden their understanding of my field – and of my general awesomeness!  (said with a devilish sparkle in their eyes)
  • I’m being told that certain people are talking smack about me.  What kind of inflated, misconstrued, or mis-heard comment might result in this (potentially inaccurate) report?  Why is someone telling me this?  If this report is true, do I actually care?  If so, I should probably strike up a conversation with these certain people, and see what is going on.

It’s Perfectly Normal to sometimes just want people to shut up.  The challenge is to refrain from suggesting that they do so!  I’ll listen to as much of the critical commentary as I can, focusing hard on the underlying helpful, positive intent, and then I’ll politely move the conversation onward.

I’m not saying that this reframing is easy.  During our recent discussion, my colleague would sometimes flip back and forth between the initial emotional reactions and the reframed sentiments.  But ultimately, they consistently and consciously chose the reframed points of view.

My colleague’s training in and experience using teamwork skills, active listening techniques, a variety of communication strategies, etc., brought their academic change project to its current state of readiness.  My colleague’s ability to accept their thoughts and feelings as Perfectly Normal, and to also choose to reframe those thoughts and feelings to be more productive, are skills that will help them persevere through peer judgement of their project.

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