Beyond Either-Or

Not all our colleagues hold the same views as we do, but we can’t afford to lose our relationships with them based on those strongly held opinions. This is not only true when politics comes into the workspace but also when we seek budget funds or have other issues with the administration. We need to listen even as we disagree with their occasionally erroneous views of school librarians and libraries. Can we hear what their truths are? Unless we can, we won’t be heard.

Disagreement can be helpful unless we assume there are only two approaches or ideas– ours and the wrong ones. As librarians, part of our work, hopefully, includes not suppressing one point of view because we disagree with it. While we champion our beliefs, we must also listen to the other side. We need to hear the elements of truth in what the other party says and then hopefully come up with a solution that incorporates more views.  

Sociology, psychology and philosophy have all wrestled with this challenge and determined that sometimes the best way to manage when there are two disparate ideas is to keep conversation open and flowing until a new interpretation or understanding comes about. Referred to as dialectics, Science ABC explains, dialectics is “a process that makes use of contradictory statements or ideas to reach an ultimate truth.” The challenge is to be able to go beyond our views to arrive at one that works for more people.

So, how do we get to this ultimate truth? In her article Kristin Hendrix in When We Find Ourselves Stuck, How to Find the Third Option,  Kristin Hendrix discusses the “Fallacy of Either/Or Thinking? and proposes four ideas:

Look for Another Perspective – Since experience and our personalities conditioned us to see things one way, get an additional perspective on an issue by talking it out with someone else—without heat or hostility. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.” Since you initiated the discussion, it will be easier to listen intending to understand, which will serve you in such situations in the future. Talking out an issue can help you see where you’ve gotten yourself boxed into one way of thinking and help you arrive at the third – and unifying – option.

Find the “And” – Is there a way to incorporate both concepts/ideas that seem, at first, opposed? What are the two goals?  Can you do both if you can do one at a time? Considering the possibility opens up to new ways of thinking. In the process of looking for an “and,” you might find another solution entirely.  As Hendrix writes, “What option would combine the benefits of both and offset the challenges?”

For example, you are asked to cover a physical education class when the usual teacher is absent. To do so you must close the library. If you bring the class into the library and have them work on a topic related to physical education (or health), you have covered the class, AND the library stayed open.

The Calm in Acceptance – Hendrix recognizes sometimes you face two bad options. Fighting the truth of that becomes a constant frustration, affecting everything in your life. Choose one and accept that you made a choice.

A friend of mine in the corporate world, hated her job. Her only option for a new job was out of the state. She didn’t want to leave the state because her mother needed her. She decided to stay where she was and reduced the extra hours she was committing to the job. Once she knew why and how she was remaining, it was easier to live with it.

From Scarcity to Abundance – When you think there are only two opposing options, you have little to work with. Hendrix points out this is functioning from a scarcity mindset.  By considering that there may be other paths to get to where you want to go, you move to an abundance mindset. Change your mindset and allow possibilities in.

Out of the box thinking – or better yet thinking there is no box – is a more creative approach to dealing with how to look at a given situation. Find ways to resolve disagreements so you continue to strengthen your relationships and become a better problem solver in the process. Take the time to look for what third option might solve the issue. 

Words of Praise, Words of Encouragement

We know compliments are important.  They can make a person’s day, but we should be more conscious of the ones we give.  Too often we praise students saying, “good job,” but our words fail to make much of an impact without specifics.

If you tell me I did a good job, I’ll be glad to hear it, but I probably won’t think about it again. However, if you said, “that story you told to make your point really resonated with me,” I will remember.  The difference between the two?  The second compliment offered something specific. It showed you weren’t making an offhand, polite statement. You noticed what I did and how I did it.

Making your compliments specific takes time and requires that we “see” the person.  We go beyond the surface and recognize what the other person has done. Telling a student that the design of their presentation had a professional look then going on to ask how they learned to do it will make an impression and a memory. 

Encouragement is also best when specific.  When we say, “You did much better with this assignment,” the student will appreciate it.  But pointing to the examples of the improvement and noticing what they learned will mean much more.

Even better than giving someone a verbal compliment or an encouraging word is to write it. I have been known to copy/paste and print comments my students have written to me at the end of a course so that I can refer to them, especially during those times of Imposter Syndrome.  It means a lot to know I reached them and made a difference.

In The Value of Mailing Encouraging Notes to Students, John Tiersma takes the concept a step further by making a commitment to send a handwritten note to each of his students every year. The results have been long lasting. Tiersma tells the story of a former student who displayed his note, written seven years earlier, on her dorm room wall. His reasoning on why this works is:a

Feeling Important Is Important – Our inner voice is a harsh critic.  Sometimes it’s all we hear. The school dynamic may compound that sense of not being smart or worthy.  A note is a physical representation that you are seen as being of value.  Having positive skills and characteristics recognized is a motivator to build on them and become engaged in learning. Tiersma stresses the importance of making your words “specific, genuine, and true.”

Another Way to Connect – For those of you who cannot do handwritten notes, Tiersma suggests “authentic compliments”, which I discussed earlier, and he encourages having “non-school conversations.” It’s how you get to know the person, not just the student. 

These conversations are also an effective relationship building approach with teachers.  They are not their job.  We only see a portion of our colleagues and students if all we see are their job-related personas.  As you connect with praise or encouragement, you may be surprised to learn what you have been missing.

With everything already on our to-do lists, starting small is probably the best approach.  Pick a student who has been looking bedraggled or one who has been showing improvement, then send them a handwritten note. Or, set a goal to have at least one to two “authentic conversations” each week. Tiersma suggests focusing on someone you don’t know well.  Learn their interests and hobbies.  I built a relationship with one teacher when I learned she liked fly fishing. I don’t share that interest, but I was able to get articles to her she might otherwise have overlooked.

As we deal with students who have been traumatized because of the pandemic or for other reasons, consider how offering praise and encouragement this way will help you to expand and develop your relationship building skills and make a difference in your work.  And remember, this doesn’t only have to be with students. Teachers need this as well. The old expression “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” reminds us how important it is to connect with the people.  True connection, like clear praise, makes a difference. It can even change a life.

Letting Go and Moving On

Change is hard. Too often it means letting go of something you were good at – or loved to do. Change is also inevitable, so while you might miss what was lost, it may be an opportunity to think in different ways and find new things to love.

In 1995, I took on a position as the senior librarian in a high school. Automation was in its earliest phase, and this library already had converted to an online catalog. But my co-librarian was heavily attached to the shelf list. Even as all our records were now digital, she persisted in continuing the print shelf list record. She had an emotional tie to the familiar and was unwilling to face the logic of letting it go. Because the relationship was new, I didn’t press for the change. As soon as she retired, I got rid of the print record of our holdings.

Moving into the future carries an element of risk, and therefore fear. Librarians are change agents and lifelong learners. While we don’t want to let go of everything just because something new comes along, we need to embrace the changes that take us to the next level. Whether it’s technology, new instructional approaches, or better ways to help our teachers and students, we must be ready to move on.

For help in moving on, Fred Ende says, “Don’t Let ‘What Was’ Get in the Way of “What’s Next..” He offers several ways to do so:

Know when to move on (or surround yourself with others who do) – Moving on has several meanings here. Ende reminds us we need to move on “when simply continuing on a path will do more harm than good or when we won’t be able to accomplish what we need to do unless we change course.” This happened when the pandemic changed how we interacted with students and teachers. The old ways didn’t work. It took ingenuity, creativity and, sometimes, idea from other librarians to help you adapt.

This also refers to the job itself. For example, tenure sometimes binds us to environments that no longer serve us. Take an honest look at your position. Are you still enjoying it?  Do you see any way it can improve?  If the answer is no, start looking for a new opportunity (but don’t talk about leaving until you find a new position).

Embrace obstacles-to-opportunity approach – Focusing on obstacles when doing something new is likely to get you stuck. Consider where this situation offers an opportunity to do something different. What was the original end goal?  What is another way to get there?

,When you look for the opportunity, you open the door to possibilities, creativity, and collaboration. If others are struggling with the issue as well, and you might end up leading the way to a new path. And as the leader, you and your program will be seen as more valuable.

Zoom out- Being stressed makes it hard to lift your head and see past the tasks at hand. Looking at things only on a day-to-day, task-to-task level results in things always being done the same way. Taking a big picture view is essential in being able to see and then let go of what is not contributing to your goals.

Ende suggests looking down the road. Where will this take you in future? Can you picture where you will be in five years with this approach? Is it where you want to be? You may not be right, but you will gain a sense of where this direction is taking you and where you may need to make a change.

There is always “the next thing” coming up. Holding on to the way things were may keep you from recognizing it and incorporating it into your practice. As they say, “When you love something, let it go.” Holding on tight never works.

Feeling Like an Imposter

You know the feeling – you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone and begun questioning your decision. You probably are thinking:  What did I get myself into? Is this beyond my skillset?  What if others can do this better?  If those or similar thoughts have entered your mind, you are suffering from the Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome afflicts successful people as well as those who are just moving into leadership. You question your qualifications and are sure you will be exposed for not measuring up to the task. But if you succumb to it, you will never try anything new and will miss opportunities to learn and grow.

The first step is recognizing that the Imposter Syndrome had arrived. Once you realize it’s not you but the Syndrome, you can take steps to deal with it. The internet is filled with suggestions on how to combat Imposter Syndrome. Most use mindset which is always helpful if somewhat difficult to achieve at times. Gemma Leigh Roberts’ has developed a slightly different approach in Boosting Confidence and Conquering Imposter Syndrome. These tips allow you to embrace its value while not letting it take over.

Apply the Benefits of Imposter Syndrome – Roberts points to focusing on humility, reframing fear as fuel, and building resilience as ways to use Imposter Syndrome to support you rather than hold you back. Being humble helps us build relationships as well as develop “an authentic and unique leadership style.” Using fear as fuel draws on the adrenaline fear creates and has you making sure you are thoroughly prepared. This in turn builds resilience. Every time you successfully get through a bout of Imposter Syndrome, you build a foundation to draw on in the future when it comes back. (And it will.)

Accept the Feeling Roberts states, “Feeling like an imposter doesn’t make you one. No one succeeds at every new endeavor without making any mistakes.”  This is part of the process – like it or not. Fighting it drains energy, energy you need to use the fear as fuel. The arrival of the Imposter Syndrome is an important reminder – it means you are being a leader. You are growing. Once you have completed this challenge you will have accomplished something that powers you to the next step.

Keep a File of Positive Feedback – Each time you step out of your comfort zone, move through Imposter Syndrome, and grow as a leader, hold on to the positive feedback you received. Don’t let compliments go unremarked. You earned them. Savor them. Bank them for days when the going gets tough. They are the energy drink to use on those days.

Chat to Someone in Your Support Network – It’s important to have people we turn to when we need someone to talk us off the ledge. It may be one person you trust or a social network group for librarians. They will understand and listen to you. There will always be a few members who can give you the advice and encouragement you need.

Use an Experiment Approach – If you regard the challenge you have undertaken as an experiment, you can reduce some of the anxiety you’re feeling about it. Whatever happens – you’ll learn something you can use in the future. Reframing the situation helps you keep successes and setbacks in proportion. No matter what, you’ll gain something from what you’re trying which will help as you go forward. You may expand on it – or not. This approach should help you breathe easier.

You will always have to deal with the Imposter Syndrome, but you don’t have to put on boxing gloves to knock it out. Accept its presence and know it’s proof that you are learning and growing. Consider it a badge of honor.