Breathing Through Work
I mentioned during my recent podcast “The One We Feed Each Day” that I’m working on trust at work through better breathing. I figure, what the heck? At 46, it seems like the right year to finally learn how to breathe! So what does that really mean and how can that build positive connections and conversations in our classrooms?
Let me start with a memory of the first time I really missed a need-to-breathe moment at work. I was a young teacher, probably 26 years old, and I had a student in my class (let’s call her Lisa) who loved my class and me the previous year. We vibed, she devoured every book we read together, loved my teaching style, hung out in my class with friends at lunch and after school. This year…let’s say we were simply having a very different experience. I asked her parents for a parent-teacher conference. (This was before I discovered the magic and importance of student-parent-teacher conferences, but that is a topic for another day.) I calmly shared my observations of the situation: for some reason Lisa wasn’t as motivated, she wasn’t participating, she wasn’t doing her work, she had a bit of an attitude, and her grade which was previously an A had dropped to a C+. I asked her mom and dad whether they had noticed a shift in Lisa and what might be happening. Her mom promptly replied, “Yes, she is very bored in your class. Can you try and make your class less boring?”
Oh no she didn’t! I became so angry I (calmly, not so calmly) said, “Excuse me, I just have to check on something.” I went out to the hallway and slammed one of the lockers shut in anger and paced around for a few minutes. I guess in a way that was taking a breath, but not really. I had simply expressed my angry self audibly just beyond my classroom door and was embarrassed when I walked back in a few minutes later. Thankfully my supervisor at the time, a great career mentor of mine, thought it was hilarious and just chuckled with me as I explained the situation after she received a confusing call from the also-angry parent.
There are so many things I wish I had said in that moment rather than throwing a mini tantrum. It mattered to me that Lisa wasn’t connected with the learning experience. At the time, I hadn’t really explored the blended practices that would enable me to personalize learning. She was right…my class wasn’t relevant or interesting to every student. In that moment, if I could have taken even one or two breaths, I could have responded rather than reacted.
Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist, psychologist, and Holocaust survivor said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Breathing gives us just enough space for choice in each moment. It also gives us just enough space for calm to join the conversation. Just like music is formed by the space between the lyrics and notes, so too is a conversation. As I start this year, I’m exploring how to let that space form within my work conversations.
In my current role as an executive and founder, my sense of accountability is growing together within with our company, LINC. It feels stressful and tense sometimes because the stakes are higher, like everything matters more, and if I get it wrong, I’ll not only be failing myself but also failing our team. But I’ve realized that leading anxiously is not the path to empowerment or success. Anxiety breeds anxiety, and I’ll simply be driving our team towards what I’m fearful of. I’ve realized I need to breathe!
Here is how I know I’m not breathing enough to find that space for calm to participate in the conversation. First, I’m talking a lot and usually quickly, so I’m exhaling a lot more than inhaling or inhaling through my mouth between words which is not calm-inducing. Second, my body is tense; specifically, I feel my lower abdomen tense up. Third, I’m in problem-solving mode.
But wait! Isn’t problem-solving mode a good and necessary one? Certainly, it is. But I’ve realized that jumping into problem-solving while trying to listen or before inquiry is a recipe not just for misunderstanding but also for leading anxiously. Listening is receiving, requiring a less active mind, in my case, and more connection to my gut or emotional core.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been tinkering with breathing differently during meetings. I’m noticing the path, in through my nose and out slowly. I’m talking more slowly and pausing to take full breaths. I’m paying closer attention to how I’m feeling in a moment than what needs to be said or done. My hypothesis is that in this moment of more problems, we actually need less problem-solving and more feeling-responding. Whether leading our team or leading our classrooms, creating just that little bit of space for responding can breathe energy into our fatigued and confused communities.