Weigh Your Words

image by Oko Swan O’Murphy via Canva

Words have heft and weight, and in our hectic world we sometimes toss them around without considering their power – including their power to wound.  An inconsiderate response can do lasting damage. An off-hand remark can crush a student. The wrong response to a teacher can close the possibilities of collaboration you have been working towards. You didn’t mean to do it, but the harm was done. On the flip-side, the right response can strengthen existing relationships and start new ones.

We typically (and unintentionally) do damage when we are busy and respond without thinking. Being aware of phrases that might harm relationships and what to say instead can help avoid these situations. Gwen Moran suggests These 7 Phrases Can Help You Sound More Powerful at Work. They will also keep relationships moving forward.

  1. Here’s What I Can Do – “No” cuts conversation off. There are always alternates you can propose. You can’t and shouldn’t always say, “Yes”, but there are alternatives.  Moran reminds us we need to set boundaries. It’s good for others to know you have a lot of work and many priorities. At the same time, you don’t want to cause a teacher to think it doesn’t pay to ask for your help because you are so busy.
  2. I’ll Find Out – This one is part of our work so it may come more naturally. As a profession, we are great at finding out and rarely just say, “I don’t know.” A quick response because we were too busy or distracted to listen carefully to the request will do more harm than letting someone know you will follow up. Try to give a date or time by when you plan to get back to them – and do so.
  3. Can You … – Asking for help is a good thing. Moran cautions you not to preface the request with, “I know how busy you are …”   You don’t want to suggest you see your request as a burden. Also, you can request that they do something before you add your support. “Can you narrow down your search before I….” “Can you give me a list of topics you want covered….” And when someone does you a favor, they feel positive about themselves – which can improve your relationship. After, don’t forget to thank them. Handwritten notes are great for this.
  4. Let’s Solve This – I love this phrase. It creates a collaborative situation which more naturally strengthens relationships. Working together you get to understand the other person’s needs better. The knowledge will help you in targeting your future communication to their wants and needs.
  5. I’m Glad You Like It – It’s hard for many of us to accept praise but minimizing it by saying it was no big deal or deflecting to how someone else contributed takes away from what the other person said. Accept compliments gracefully and graciously. Assess if it’s a good time to get feedback by asking, “What do you think worked?” as well as “How could I have done it better?” or “What do you think I should do next time?”  In the convivial atmosphere of a conversation, you can get a helpful response and build for the future.
  6. I Want to Help – Whether it’s a teacher or a student who is distraught, “Calm down” never works. It typically aggravates the situation which, in turn, weakens a relationship. Saying you want to help or asking what you can do allows the person to focus on what you are saying and that help is available. Helping them articulate what they need further strengths your relationship by showing them you are someone who can be trusting in stressful situations.
  7. I’m Happy I Was Able to Help – Moran says this goes beyond saying “You’re welcome.”  That phrase is an automatic response to a thanks. By bringing in your happiness, you pave the way for further opportunities to work together and reinforce the collaboration and connection that occurred.

Words spoken aloud or in text are fundamental to our communication. Communication is a tool for building relationship. Relationships are part of our leadership skills, and leadership is necessary for advocacy. Because words have power to harm or help, they can erode all we are trying to build when we speak carelessly. Bullies use them consciously to hurt. Implicit bias has been unconscious but no less wounding. Despite our knowledge, sometimes we speak without considering what the receiver of our message hears. Before you speak, take stock of where you are, especially if you’re feeling rushed or stressed, and pause before you respond. It can make a big difference.

Focus and Procrastination

Photo by Antonio Guillem via Canva

There is always something that needs to get done but too often something pulls our focus. Before we know it, we’ve lost too much time and haven’t made the progress we want. Is there a way to make the two work together?

Sometimes procrastination can help and other times, not so much. When we choose to answer a phone call or an email as a way to not work on a task, it can be hard to get focused again. Then there are the times when you’re stuck during a project. You take a break. Perhaps go for a walk or even play a game of solitaire (my two favorites). When you return to work, somehow you have figured out what you need to do next. The procrastination became an aid not a deterrent.

What’s the difference? Usually it’s your attitude or mindset towards what you are doing. Are you taking the break intentionally or to avoid something? When you are not eager to dig into the task at hand, staying focused can be a challenge. You are more likely to succumb to the negative aspects of procrastination. The short break you give yourself stretches out. By the time you get back to work, more time has passed than you realized. Then we typically beat ourselves up for taking the break. You probably will get it done, but without the enthusiasm that produces your best work.

As part of a blog post on How to Remove Distractors from Your Workday, Naphtali Hoff shares six techniques to help you manage internally driven distractors from your day:

  1. Set Daily Goals – This is familiar advice. My suggestion is to limit the number of goals to two tasks. You can have more on your to-do list but keep your focus on one or two priorities. If you get to anything else, it’s a bonus.
  2. Set Deadlines – Most of your tasks probably have inherent deadlines, but it helps to be specific. Set a time by when you will finish the day’s top priority items. Having a “by when” will help you achieve it as you have a goal you are working toward.
  3. Break Project into Manageable Chunks – Big projects are intimidating. My method is to telescope, microscope, and periscope (see my blog post on this here). Use Telescope to identify by when the project must be completed. (Set your own internal deadline for before that date since life happens.) Microscope by determine a sequence of steps, including daily ones. Focus only on the one you need to complete today. Every so often, pop up your Periscope to see what is coming up. Do you need to alter your daily schedule?
  4. Practice Mindfulness – Meditation is not procrastination. Use all your tools to keep your outlook positive. Record your successes. Praise yourself for accomplishments. Hoff says, “practicing mindfulness meditation is associated with improvement in sustaining focus and attention.” When you feel good about yourself, it’s much easier to get work done – and stay focused at it.
  5. Set a Timer – This allows for what might be called “planned procrastination”. It’s like a workout for a specified period of time. How long do you want to work before taking a break?  Your body needs to move, your thoughts may need to focus elsewhere for a little while. It’s healthier if you get up each hour for a few minutes. After a second hour, you might plan a longer break – to take that walk or play that game. But set a timer for that, too.
  6. Switch Tasks – Sometimes you hit a brick wall. While some form of procrastination to refresh your brain cells might work, consider switching to task #2 on your to-do list. Some may find that doing this needs some transition time, but as long as you know you’re making this change, you’ll start the next task sooner.

Know how your mind and body behave. Identify what is happening when you lose focus or when you’re having trouble getting focused. How long can you work full-out at something before your focus begins to dwindle? Remember that you can welcome, allow, and even plan for procrastination as a tool in accomplishing tasks. When you do this – the time spent procrastinating is less likely to take over your day.

Lessons Moving Forward

We have gone through what has been an exceedingly challenging year and survived. There are scars, and there are lessons. The scars are a tribute to our resilience and will always be with us. The lessons need to be as well. What life lessons helped sustain you and others in the last year and a half?

One of my big lessons was the need for scheduled connections. In my pre-pandemic hectic life, I reached out to family and friends as the mood struck and time was available. Now these important people are on a schedule and/or on my to-do list. I don’t see them as work, of course, but I don’t trust myself to be consistent without reminders. I am too likely to get caught up in the returned busy-ness and forget. I don’t want to lose the connections that were deepened.

As we relax over the summer and make plans for the year ahead, this is a good time to take stock of what we learned or what we’d like to make sure to keep in the future. I found LaRay Quy’s article The Best Advice People Can Give Their Younger Selves touches on seven recommendations to help us:

  1. Make plans but write them in pencil – You need a direction, but you also must be prepared to change it as the situation demands. Being flexible was key in the last fifteen months and that will not change. If you are traveling on a highway, accidents and construction can force you to detour. Life’s journey is no different. Sometimes the detour allows you to see and experience what you might have overlooked. Sometimes it slows you up, but you still saw something new. That’s life. Or as Ursula LeGuin said in Left Hand of Darkness, “It’s always good to have an end to journey toward, but it’s the journey that matters in the end.”
  2. Read better books – We read –we are librarians. Have you been denying yourselves the pleasure because of too much work?  We need our reading to help us grow. It’s not necessarily significant texts. It’s new authors who present a different perspective.  I have found important insights in romantic fiction. The genre is not what’s important. The author and their message is.
  3. Invest in friendships – As my opening example shows, we need friendships and connection in our lives. We need our old friends and need to make new ones. Quy notes we attract people like us. Focus on your positives and your friendship circle will be enlarged by equally positive people. Find people who want to grow and learn as you do.
  4. Know when to leave – This is true in relationships and in work. Reflect on the relationships in your life. Are there some that are draining? You don’t need people who only take. Some jobs are toxic as well. I left one, and it changed my life for the better. Don’t stay in bad situations because you fear losing tenure. If you are good, you will get tenure in the next position – and you’ll have a situation where you can thrive.
  5. Forget about following your passion – Here is where I disagree with Quy, but it’s mainly a question of definitions. She says passion is fleeting and self-serving, and it’s better to follow your purpose. I emphatically support following your purpose. But my purpose has become my passion, and it has been my passion for many years. Take time to look at what you’re passionate about and see how that weaves into your purpose – the connections you find will surprise you.
  6. Solve harder problems – It’s easy to continue doing what we have always been doing, but growth comes from leaving your comfort zone. This is where you truly live your purpose. Take it onto a larger stage. Volunteer for a committee with your state school library association. If you already do that, move to the national level. Scary?  Yes, but as you grow, you become better at your job. Your new knowledge will affect how you present yourself and boost your confidence. The result – your colleagues and administrators will recognize you as a leader.
  7.  Forgive first – This may seem like an odd piece of advice for this list, but anger and resentments weigh you down. It gives the other party power over you. You don’t have to forget, but recognize the issue is in the past. You don’t want it in your future. And don’t forget to forgive yourself.

I would add two more to Quy’s lists; Being Aware of Others, and Gratitude. I am far more conscious of the many people on the fringes of my life whose work makes my life possible. Delivery drivers, sanitation workers, the employees of my local supermarkets, and health care providers are among the many people who make my days easier. I am more aware then ever of the work they do and I am very grateful.

It’s time to reflect and plan. As expected, our post-pandemic world is a changed place. We need to envision how we will be in our new normal, and that means integrating the lessons we learned. What would you put on your list to help you move forward?

The Power of Storytelling

Storytelling is a way of creating connection. Any librarian who has read to a class of rapt students has felt the power and magic of a good story. You have transported them to another place and into the life of someone else. Although not as obvious, telling your story also has the power to move your listeners. The ability to tell the right story at the right time is an often-overlooked skill in building relationships. Relationships are personal, and stories can make personal connections happen. They can also help your administrators understand the vital role you and the library play in the success of the school and its students.

There is vulnerability in telling your stories even if you’re not sharing intimate details of your life. But when you offer a truth about your life, you offer an opportunity to build trust, which is the foundation of relationships. You don’t truly have a relationship with someone unless there is a level of trust.

I once had a conversation with a very well-known library leader whose position had been terminated. Although he had secured another place, he was worried about how he would fare. I told him I had just changed districts after 22 years in the same place and had felt as he did, only to discover that I was more valued in my new school. I further shared that I had grown in my old job in ways I didn’t realize. I did not recognize my own value, but the new district did. Six months later, I saw him again. He shared that his experience mirrored mine. We made a personal connection through story.

On another occasion, I told a librarian of what a failure I was in the early part of my career and mentioned some of the turning points. She told me later how much she appreciated hearing it. She had been having some self-doubts and saw me as someone who never failed in my journey to leadership. I became more human in her eyes. The connection was made.

When giving a presentation, stories are a way to connect with your audience. As Jeff Davenport says in Why Should I Tell a Story?, stories engage listeners. Hammering people with data may seem to give them what they want, but the story connects them to you and your message. It touches emotions, and emotions guide our decisions more than we like to believe. It gives them a reason to listen.

This is not to say you shouldn’t bring in data but consider using story to share it. Davenport observes that talking about a situation and how it was handled gives directions to listeners far better than a list of instructions or numbers. For example, telling a story about working with a student who struggled and their triumph after first failing will resonate. When you follow up with the research studies, the audience is in a place to receive it.

According to Davenport, you can and should also use story to describe the future. Your Vision Statement is a look into what the library might be. Share the vision as a story. Think about starting it with something like, “Imagine what it would be like if…”

When sharing with teachers, principals, and parents, finding ways to use story brings them closer to your purpose. Consider using pictures and videos to enhance your story, creating vivid images of a potential future. As they are watching, share stories that emphasize the benefits to students and teachers. The story of your Vision will help move them from their current (and potentially dated) mental and emotional image of what a school library is and help move them into considering what is possible. The story you share can guide them there.

No one knows the power of story better than librarians. We use it to captivate students; we teach them how to use it to draw a teacher into the work they create. We can use it ourselves not only in developing the one-on-one relationships that strengthen our programs and enhance collaboration, but to increase the interest and support of the library’s key stakeholders. The next time you need to talk to teachers, your principal, or others – start by telling them a story. They’ll keep listening to find out how it ends.