There was a knock on my door. “Have you a minute?” Lisa said as she edged open my door. She looked angry. Very angry actually. “Of course” I said as I put down my pen, swung around towards the empty chair in the corner and gestured for her to take a seat. I took a deep breath and braced myself for the SFD.
The “Stormy First Draft” as Brene Brown (a shame and empathy researcher from Texas USA) calls it. Brene, if you don’t know her, is my favourite story-teller and knows just a little bit about shame, blame, and leadership. Her teaching tells us so much about how to be restorative when working with teams, complaints, and breakdown in effective communications.
The Stormy First Draft. We all have it. We all do it. We all need it. It isn’t a judgement on you as a person if you have lots of them. I have a library of them – all unpublished. If you ever see me driving the M2 in Northern Ireland you’ll see me orating them in the car. Every. Single. Day. My husband to be, JP, is a seasoned audience of my SFD’s. Patient, kind, generous of spirit, and one of the best reflectors I know, he is my editor of SFD’s.
The Stormy First Draft is your first and most emotional response to an event which threatens some sense of your security. They are usually gift wrapped in past pain, insecurities, fear, and tied with a colourful bow which reads “I’m not good enough.” And before you think this is a gift just for the girls. It isn’t. Guys have Stormy First Drafts too. They just don’t talk about them as much as girls do, which is a great sadness to me considering the suicide rate in men and the raft of research which suggests that women’s propensity to tell their SFD to, well just about anyone who will listen (including a random granny at the bus stop who just asked how your day was going), is a protective factor in mental health. We all need an editor for our SFD’s, and good leaders accept this (often unacknowledged) responsibility with the wisdom that it will build stronger and more resilient employees. It is the “support” function of your leadership role.
Lisa sat down. She took a deep breath and said:
“I hate working here. I am so fed up with this. Do you know what they did?”
“To You?” I asked, checking myself against the fourth rule of braving leadership – Vaulting.
“Yes to me!” she replied
“Ok, good,” I thought, we were within the boundary of talking about things that belonged to Lisa to talk about. In practicing restoratively, "Vaulting" is keeping confidential things that are spoken to you, but which do not belong to you, and equally important, not listening to things that are spoken to you which do not belong to you or the person talking about them. It goes to the core of integrity – of being trust-worthy. Bottom line is if you or the person talking to you, isn’t involved in the trouble you are sharing, if they don’t impact you or them in some way – then mind your own business and frankly, stop being a gossip.
And so out it came, the SFD, words tumbling over each other. How, ever since she had spoken out against the expectation that everyone should work overtime, and she had chosen to not work overtime, because she had children to care for, “they” had ignored her. Whispers fell to silence when she walked in the room, covert looks were passed over shoulders and although nothing was said, she could feel the judging stare as she packed up her bag at 6pm every evening and left the office.
“They’re bullies – they don’t understand what it is like to juggle children and work. I’m going to put in a grievance.”
Now the Stormy First Draft is a double-edged sword. They are dangerous if they become your truth. And they become your truth through unchecked repetition either to yourself or to others. And so this effective and crucial leadership skill of processing the SFD is not just for managers and HR. Everyone should be trained in it. Because often we choose to tell SFD’s to selective people whom we know will agree with us, we keep them secret from people who will actually process them. And yet, in organisations that have great leadership, the task of processing the SFD is a cornerstone in building a compassionate culture, where creativity, solutions, harmony and collaborative productivity resides, and avoiding the shaming, blaming culture where those things come to die.
The unarguable pre-requisite for the SFD is permission to tell the SFD in the first place, safely, and without fear of judgement that you are “hysterical,” “weak,” “a complainer,” “can’t cut it”, or you “need to grow a set.” Don’t even get me started on what the “set” to be grown is… Balls? Breasts? Both? Neither? Who knows? But the message is clear, “you are less than when you express feelings.” The list of judgements which can come on the back of the SFD when your team are not explicitly trained in the value of it, in the right place with the right people, is long and often the experience is harsh, punitive and destructive.
Now, I’ve covered permission giving and receiving as part of trustful container building before, so I won’t labour it again here. You can read it on our blog here, and learn a quick exercises on how to build it in the resources section of our website here. But let’s talk about what you should do when someone brings you their SFD.
Listen to the SFD
Unfettered. A little like a tummy bug that needs to be expelled from the body, just let them get it out. Don’t try and work out what is in it just yet. Just let them say it out loud. I use lots of these:
Tell me more
Can you say more about that?
This takes a wee bit of time, so remember your boundaries. If you don’t have the time right there and then, schedule a time and acknowledge the importance of respecting their story enough to give it time.
Acknowledge and Empathise with their feelings
Acknowledge and empathise with the feelings they are expressing. Naming them is important in building emotional literacy so that they are able to verbalise the emotion rather than demonstrate it. Did you know that only 20% of adults can name more than 3 basic emotions to describe their feelings? That means 80% of us can only name, 1, 2 or 3. And when we can’t verbalise a feeling, we tend to act it out in the manner of a 3 year old stamping their foot.
Find the emotion. Name it. Check it. Without stepping over the boundary, into their feelings (sympathy). So lots of these types of acknowledgements:
"This sounds really difficult for you – you feel treated unfairly, I understand how angry you are."
"I hear you saying how rejected you feel."
"You sound hurt and isolated."
But never this:
“I know exactly what you mean, I felt totally furious when that happened to me. It’s horrible isn’t it?”
This is sympathy. Not helpful. Because now you are both wallowing in the SFD and sinking fast.
Reflect and reframe the basis of their feeling as a consequence of their unmet needs
Learning how to reframe SFD’s as having an impact on your needs as is a key skill in restorative practice. We have a very snappy title for it – “Restorative Language.” Good eh?
Different to blaming language, where the feeling is connected to the other person’s behaviour, in restorative language we connect the feeling to our needs. Identifying your needs which are impacted by someone else’s behaviour, allows you to express much more clearly what is and isn’t a boundary for you in a concrete, professional and assertive way. The difference can be seen in Fig 1 & 2 below.
Restorative Language follows a very simple formula.
For example you might say in response to Lisa’s SFD:
“So when Julie and Aoife stopped talking as soon as you came into the room you felt hurt and suspicious because you need to feel like you belong in this workplace too and if there is a problem you need to be able to address it transparently?”
“So when you pack up your bag in the evenings, you feel judged because you need to be valued for the work you do when you are here and not for the choice to put a boundary around your home life?”
The above way of reframing feelings as connected to our needs rather than someone else’s behaviour helps us to feel more in control of ourselves, express our needs more clearly and take the personal out of what often feels (and sometimes is) very personal to us. Often we go straight to blaming language which connects our feelings to their behaviour and sounds more like this:
“Every time I walk into a room and they stop talking they make me feel like crap.”
This contributes to a sense of not having control over our own feelings because we have given power (in our heads) to someone else to “make us” feel something. And of course this just isn’t true. So having someone help us to make sense of that SFD and start to identify which needs of ours have been offended or infringed upon helps us to identify what we then can do about it.
Bridge the Gap With Them
This is where you help the person to identify what request they must make to best secure their needs being met. It’s the “would you be willing to…” request made clearly and directly after an assertive assessment of how what is currently happening is impacting on their needs.
So the above restorative statement above extends to become:
"When you stop talking as soon as I come into the room
I feel hurt and suspicious
because I need to feel like I belong in this workplace too.
If you are upset with me, would you be willing to talk about it privately with me? "
Of course, when you do this you are making yourself vulnerable to a refusal, a further rejection. This is the bit that takes the courage. There are some things you can do to maximise the chances of the person agreeing to your request.
In my experience, when you use this very clear way of communicating, taking radical responsibility for your own needs in expressing what the problem is for you, instead of pushing your feelings back onto them, I have found people generally work in harmony with you. Of course not always. So let's look at 3 possible outcomes:
When this last example happens it is disappointing but surprisingly it won't bother you anywhere near as much as you think it will. It has less power to impact you, because you now know this is about them and their issues and not you or yours. Because for you, your SFD is no longer tied up with the bow that reads “you are not enough as you are,” and that shaming message, at the end of the day, is most often the real crux of the problem.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner and trainer, a mum, a partner, a mediocre saxophonist, and the chief quality controller of all chocolate in her household.
Let's face it, if the answer on to how to move back into schools safely, meeting the education and mental health needs of students, parents, and teachers was squirrelled away in the Principal's office, not one of us would think twice about creeping in there, full on ninja style, and stealing it. And we would probably find ourselves waiting in a (socially distanced) queue behind everyone else with the same desire for answers. But what if everyone is looking to you for answers and you don't have them? You wouldn't be the first school leader who found out what was happening in your school on the 6 o'clock news. That's not a comfortable place to be.
Despite not having the answers to all the questions, there is still a need for School Leaders to lead in this journey of uncertainty and to do this in ways that are inclusive and build resilience. The first step in this journey is admitting that you don't have all the answers, but that you are doing everything you can to get the right information, and to share that fully with your staff, parents and where appropriate your students. But this is an unfolding situation and you have little idea of when or what you might be facing in the next peak. I travelled the Amazon river in my early thirties, and had a very sage guide called Julio who, when asked what sort of weather we should dress for that day, replied "all of it". And so we prepare.
Be Prepared to Collaborate
In preparation you must collaborate with the people you are leading. And not just to tell them what is happening, but to ask them where they are at right now, where their children, students, parents are at right now. What their biggest fears, worries, and wishes are going forward. And then you need to do the same with the parents, and with the children. They will all bring something different to the story, a different angle, a fresh perspective, a nugget of importance that might just be the key that opens the door to a way forward in meeting education needs alongside mental health needs.
It is tempting to diminish the need to do the ground work of mental and emotional health support in favour of getting back to basics with Maths and English, but we know from years of research that until a child feels safe and secure they cannot work on belonging and self worth. And that until they feel that they belong and are worthy, they will not have the confidence to take a risk to try something that realises their potential. Asking "What do you need from me going forward?" is a crucial question. This is not a promise to deliver outcomes, it is a question to understand needs. "Seek first to understand and then to be understood." as Stephen Covey: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People famously said.
Hold Values Close
Good leaders hold their values close at times of struggle. Get really clear on what these values are. Make sure you have buy in from your team. Make sure your parents, your staff, your children understand what they are. Is it safety? Is it life long learning? Is it safety and love? Is it striving for the best? Is it reaching your potential?
Give Permission and Promote Accountability of Others and Themselves
Good leaders also create safe spaces and permission to share needs and struggles. Now, most teachers, in fact most people, I talk to about the importance of permission do a little eye roll here. "Of course people have permission to speak openly!" they say. But do they really? Think about this. You can have the best model in the world which pushes a permission agenda encouraging you to talk openly about fears, anxieties, upsets and conflict, but if you don't cultivate this everyday, lead by example and hold others accountable when they don't protect the permission culture, you will not only completely ruin the permission, you will actually further dis-empower people to speak openly. I have seen this done with a throwaway comment made by a leader or about another staff member or pupil, denigrating them, dismissing them, or a decision they made. I have seen it done by colleagues and peers and it went unchecked by a leader. This creates fear. Fear to speak out and have your view respected, not just right now, while you stand in the room, but after you leave and are no longer there to defend yourself. And fear as a culture will create more shame and silence than you could ever imagine. Because those people watching and listening to you being denigrated or dismissed or eye-rolled at after you have left the room, will never have permission to speak their truth safely.
Listen, Listen and Listen
Good Leaders organise time to consult with everyone. To seek out the views of everyone, not just the talkers and the confident kids and parents. To find ways to hear what the less communicative students, parents and teachers think. Provide different ways to be heard, publicly, anonymously, verbally, in writing, through text, phone call, the means of soliciting the views of others are many and varied. Two ears one mouth. Enough said.
Good Leaders Are Kind to Themselves
This is by no means the least important. Good leaders know that they have to self care. They know that a burned out leader is as much use as a handbrake on a canoe. Take regular breaks, ensure you have a day when you aren't taking phone calls, writing contingency plans, measuring out 1 metre distanced desks or developing strategies for the toilet run. Whether you have a faith or not, keep one day sacred. For you.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and excellent chocolate quality controller.