A dear friend of mine called last night. We haven't talked in nearly two years. She told me how much I had helped her in the past and that she was ashamed that she hadn't called to thank me. She said her dad had even told her to call me, but she kept putting it off. The more she put it off, the more she felt guilty about not calling, the more she felt ashamed to call. Boy, could I totally relate. We laughed and shed a couple of tears and were both so grateful to be able to talk openly and honestly.
Today's sermon was about how often we don't ask questions for fear of looking ridiculous. I could relate to that, as well. I always tell my graduate students to ask for clarification from the feedback I give them on their papers, but I had one student who told me in the 6th week of the 6-week course that she had just realized how to open her paper back up to view my comments (to her credit, we have a new system that makes you have to download the paper before you can read the comments on the Word document). She said she spent hours going back and reading all the comments on all the papers she had written throughout the semester. She finally felt comfortable enough to tell me that she could not figure out what I had meant every week when I said, "Be sure to read the specific comments I've written on your paper, and let me know if you have any questions for next week." Why? She was afraid to look dumb in asking the question.
I was teaching a group of high-school teachers about the need to build rapport before we can build rigor (the new "catch-phrase" seems to be "We need to Maslow before we can Bloom", but I have a tiny problem with turning these famous thinkers' names into verbs, so I'll stick with my own "Build Rapport Before Rigor"). I had given some directions to the teachers about writing a quote that exemplified the need to build relationships with students. I told them they had about a minute or so of individual work time then we would talk about what they had come up with; one teacher (out of the literally 100 teachers in the room) raised his hand and asked, "Can you just say again what you are asking us to do?" In the middle of 100 people, that teacher was not afraid to say, "I don't get it. I need you to give that direction a different way". I complimented him, making the connection that I believe that is just what we need to do with all of our students (whether they are five years old or 75 years old): create an environment in which asking questions of the instructor or of each other is not only permitted but encouraged.
For what reasons do I not ask questions? It typically has everything to do with my own insecurities about looking dumb. I want you to think that I know what I am doing, when in reality, I sometimes don't have a clue. What gets in the way of asking for help or answers? Typically, it is my pride, my own fear, or my own control issues. I want to appear to be on top of things...and yet...I am the one who tells my graduate students, my doctoral students, and all the participants in workshops I teach, "Vulnerability does not equate to weakness". In fact, in my experience, when I share my own vulnerabilities, it paves the way to others feeling more comfortable in sharing theirs. And when I share that I may not have all the answers, it allows people to be a little less harsh, I think. Just as I opened my website to write this blog, I saw a note from a former participant in a workshop I taught earlier this month. He wrote an apology for talking about something "off-topic" when I visited his break-out room during a training. He went on to explain the reason he was talking about his frustration, but he came back to the apology. He thanked me for the resources I had provided and for what he felt was a really great workshop. I couldn't help but see the irony of the timing. As I am preparing to write a blog on what fear holds me back from doing, I was faced with someone who shared their vulnerability and apology. Lest any of us forget, we are only human, and we are apt to make several mistakes along this journey of life. I am eternally grateful I don't have to be perfect, that I don't HAVE to take myself so dang seriously, and that I can, indeed, laugh at myself when I say something ridiculous in the middle of a workshop filled with 100 people.
What is fear keeping you from doing today? I hope the answer is "nothing", but if you are anything like me, there is likely something, and I pray that you realize in what good company you are if you make a mistake.