By Tom Salter, senior communication officer in Montgomery (Ala.) Public Schools
Is it just me or do people seem to be angry these days? Maybe it is the war(s), or higher gas prices, global warming, underwear shrinking in the dryer, or it could be that their favorite celeb lost on Dancing with the Stars. Whatever the cause, it seems that people don’t smile as much as they used to. They seem demanding, less patient, generally unwilling to listen to reason or even believe videotape evidence. This isn’t a new trend. I think it started in the ’70s when the Ford Pinto was introduced, and it took root later in that decade when we discovered all that our “Pet Rock” would do is play dead – no matter how hard you tried to get it to beg or sit up. But whatever its origin, anger is alive and well and, unfortunately, it is not limited to those we serve.
An unfortunate change in culture
People seem more open today with their emotions. They aren’t afraid to look you in the eye and use words that were once reserved for sailors on leave. They have a different attitude about things. Civility and respect can seem as rare as hen’s teeth. Educators are no longer revered as they once were. Some people see us as nothing more than another service – another set of government bureaucrats. It is up to us to show our communities and even our own employees that we care about children and about education.
Before we can help solve the problems our parents and our community bring us, we have to make sure our own house is in order. Morale is not easy to maintain. It is important to reinforce constantly how important people are in our organizations and help them know they are part of the team. Superintendents need to lead from the top, but involve everyone as much as possible in the decision making process. Transparent and open school districts are happy ones. Keep people informed. Don’t treat them like mushrooms.
There is an old saying in sales: if you want to sell something, find out what the customer wants, how much he is willing to pay for it … and then sell it to him! The same is true for our employees and our customers. At one district they had some very unhappy bus drivers. Many were cranky and unhappy. When they finally took the time to ask a group of them why, the answer was they didn’t feel like a valued part of the team because they didn’t have a “uniform polo shirt” like the staff at each school. A few hundred dollars and a couple of weeks later and they were not only happier, they looked great too!
Take it down a notch
When someone enters your office in a foul mood, use a basic communication technique to help make them less emotional. When they come in spiting fire, listen very carefully. Look for clues as to the root of the problem – something that may not be evident in the words they use. The fuel of their anger may not have much to do with the issue they are presenting.
If they are LIVID – say, “I understand you are ANGRY” in a calm voice. When they start to lose steam a little say, “I understand you are CONCERNED” again in a calm voice. Keep changing the words you use to calmer descriptions of how they feel until they have lost most of their emotions and you can talk with them and address the real problem. Try it, it works.
I tried an experiment recently. While walking through an airport, I smiled and said hello to twenty strangers. Sixteen people returned my smile and 12 of them responded verbally with a positive response. However, during my journey coming and going through three different airports, not once did anyone smile or say hello to me first. It took me stepping out of my shell to make contact with another person. Simple things can have a profound effect. A kind word or small gesture of friendship can make a big difference in a person’s day. Remember, as Congreve said in 1697, it is the simple tune that can “charm the savage breast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak.”
It doesn’t always require a complicated communication plan to make things better. Sometimes a genuine smile is all it takes to turn someone’s attitude … unless, of course, they are still complaining about their Ford Pinto or the obedience class for their Pet Rock.
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