Tuesday, August 28, 2012

4 Steps to Prevent Unhelpful Narratives

As I sit in my office and review a file for a meeting I will have in the next half-hour, I am making every effort to use non-judgement to prevent pre-conceived notions about a parent. I have not met the parent. I have observed their child for a concise 20 minutes. However,  I have been exposed to a narrative that has come from everyone from the teacher all the way to the janitors... "Oh you are meeting with her?" "You better bring a Lawyer with you." "She is a piece of work." "I think she just want to make our lives hell."

Working in a school constantly exposes you to narratives and assumptions from personnel regarding parents, students and other teachers. Listening and processing these narratives feeds our left- brain.The left brain is responsible for logic and is in charge of verbalizing internal thoughts and feelings. The left hemisphere is also responsible for creating our life story, or autobiographical narrative. As such, when we process negative verbal information that we also begin to create our own narratives e.g. "Ugh I don't want to talk to that teacher", "That parent doesn't care about their child", "This student is just lazy".  You can't fault your left brain for stringing together this verbal information, as its doing its job. The left brain is really amazing and gives us novels, movies and the ability to put our feeling into words. However, the left brain's drive for giving verbal context to sensory information is so strong that it can often confabulate a story, taking cues from what it knows and putting them together in an answer that makes sense, even if it leaves out important information.  For this reason alone we must be able to stop serving it and call it a cab before it gets drunk on power. Not doing so can create opinions or judgments about things that may not take the whole picture into account.

Creating false narratives can be a disadvantage in a field that requires empirically based observations and data based decision making. The word empirical in its self implies that which is acquired through sensory experience, rather than left brain concocted theories. Therefore when making decisions, completing observations or going into a situation that already carries a narrative (most meetings), it is imperative to take these steps to stay in the moment and making informed observations about what is happening in the now.

  1. Take a 3 Deep Breathes: Mindfulness and breathing are inseparable, and deep breathing is suggested ad nauseam  as a means to anchor yourself. Well it works and focusing on your breath will help you prepare to identify those pesky narratives with they jump into your head.
  2. Take a quick body scan and notice how your body is feeling in the moment. Are you nervous? Is your heart beating faster than normal? Are your shoulders or jaw clenched. Noticing these somatic triggers will help you stay aware of the mind body connection. If your body is in a state of stress it will more likely grasp for any narrative it can in order to explain why you are feeling as such, even if this narrative has no basis in what is actually happening.
  3. Notice the narrative when it arises: Here is where non-judgement comes into play. Notice judgments,  preconceived notions and assumptions when they pop-up. Acknowledge them as such and move your sensory awareness back to the task at hand, whether it be listening, writing or observing what is happening in the moment. 
  4. Creative a new narrative: In the moment of acknowledging a toxic narrative it can be helpful to label it and creative a new narrative in a non-judgmental fashion. For example if a teacher says something along the lines of "I don't think this student's parent cares about school, he never returns his homework." Instead of using this information to create a theory of why homework is not returned, you can just repeat to yourself "listening", or "helping". These anchor words will help to create space between what is actually going on and what the toxic narrative is explaining is going on. I had a teacher same something similar to me once. We later found out that the student was doing all the homework; however he wasn't turning it in. Weeks of homework and assignments were crumbled up in balls at the bottom of his back pack. 
By having a consistent mindfulness practice we are better able to create the awareness necessary to not only notice maladaptive narratives when they arise, but also use our sensory experience to gain empirical information about what is actually happening in the moment. We can become better practitioners, consultants and team members if we stay in the moment and work with what is actually happening now, rather than continuing a story that our drunk Uncle Left Brain started weeks ago.

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