Do You Want Sympathy or Solutions?

At a recent Virtual Town Hall, Damien Barrett, Systems Administrator and Ed Tech Integrator at Montclair Kimberley Academy in New Jersey,illustration shared his philosophy for working with stressed colleagues and students as we all get through the challenges of this pandemic year. He shares more insights on this topic in this guest blog post. -- SD [10 minute read]

Guest Blogger: Damien Barrett 

When either my wife Alise or I have an obviously bad day, we have agreed to ask each other one simple, but powerful question: Are you seeking sympathy or solutions? 

This question, more than almost anything in our marriage, has prevented arguments, disagreements, fights, anger, strife, conflict, and resentment. It also suggest some insights for working with children and adults who are under stress in our current environment.

It immediately does a number of things: it makes the answerer think metacognitively about what they are seeking, and it guides what happens next. 

There is significant power and utility to venting; child development experts have known this for a very long time. Oh, that child is in a bad mood? Let’s give him or her a safe place to vent and release all that pent-up emotion. This practice is common in many Montessori-style schools and is used to great effect. After my first wife Katie died from cancer and left me as a single dad to raise our then five- and six-year-old children, our family attended a unique and amazing grief management group in Morristown, New Jersey, called Good Grief. There, we discovered a “volcano room” where children of all ages were encouraged to safely release their anger, frustration, and grief. The room had nerf bats and objects designed to be whaled-upon, and, oh, did they whale. And wail. And heal. 

I’ve been working as a technology troubleshooter for almost 30 years now. I quite literally solve problems for a living. It’s sometimes difficult for me to not fall immediately into a problem-solving mode, a reason that many couples can end up in trouble. Using this tool to help you communicate with your spouse could save your marriage. And your mental health. And your job. 

If you’re a teacher or school administrator, consider using this tool, or a variation of it, with your students. Do you have an “open door” policy that allows students to come to you for any reason at all? Consider using this simple “sympathy or solutions” tool with students who come to you for help. There’s a good chance they are looking for a trusted adult to whom they can just vent. Surely, you haven’t forgotten one of the key lessons from Dead Poets Society -- yawping is okay. And if these students are looking for actual solutions, then even better. You can then start to work on developing a solution to the problem(s). 

If you manage a department of adults, do you have the same open-door policy? Have you built a level of trust with them? If not, why not? If your organizational structure allows for it, you may find that it can help strengthen your team, prevent employee arguments, and combat your employees’ feelings of imposter syndrome. Everyone wins. 

Damien Barrett works as a Systems Administrator and EdTech Integrator at a large independent school in New Jersey.

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