How Might I Be Wrong?

Finding patience during the most trying of times.

October 6, 2020

I started reading An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization one day over the summer, and I’ve been returning to it as I have time. I started listening to it again over the weekend, and I came across a powerful question -- How might I be wrong? -- and I stopped and jotted down some notes.

I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Robert Kegan back in the summer of 2014 while attending a leadership program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It was a large group and he walked all 70-plus of us through an immunity to change exercise. It was fantastic, and while I can’t remember what my focus was, I distinctly remember that one of my colleagues focused on staying on top of his email. He was a dean or vice president at an institution and he had a real immunity to change related to responding to his email. (I will admit that I still haven’t developed a foolproof system for staying on top of my email, but I keep trying.)

Returning to the question: “How might I be wrong?” which, in the midst of our new COVID reality, I thought was particularly salient. It goes like this -- in any given situation when we encounter an emotional trigger, when we are emotionally “hooked” or when we go into automatic reaction mode, if we could only press pause, create space, think enough to respond thoughtfully, we could save ourselves and others a lot of grief, anxiety or anger (insert your favorite go-to trigger emotion here). If pressed, I would have to say that mine is probably annoyance -- a reaction that has been with me for a very long time, since way back when I was eye rolling in elementary school.

I have been working on it and I had somewhat of an aha moment with this sentence -- How might I be wrong? Instead of rolling my eyes, maybe I could take a deep breath and ask myself -- how might I be wrong? In a faculty senate meeting, with a student, in a community meeting, with a frenemy, with a family member, with my son, just silently asking myself that question creates a pause between my instant internal reaction and the eye roll or the words that thoughtlessly come blurting out of my mouth at a rapid-fire pace. For me, it is in this pause where I can find freedom. It is also the space for better mutual understanding or what I called generous listening last spring after having amazing conversations with Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Generous Thinking) and Sherri Spelic (Edified Listening).

Twenty twenty (aka the shittiest year ever) has made generous listening simultaneously both really, really necessary and really, really difficult. I find that meditation helps. So does intentionally refusing to roll my eyes. This is accomplished by opening them wider and trying not to blink -- which can end up looking like some kind of strange staring contest on Zoom. I look amazed, alert, attentive and a little bit weird, but better than annoyed and condescending.

How might I be wrong? In the coaching world, this is known as switching the point of view or asking, what do others see that I don’t see? How might I be wrong? It might also be what do I not know? What is missing? What does my colleague see that I do not see? And that leads us to how might I be wrong? I am not recommending that you take this stance with just anyone in your life, but I do think it’s worth trying out with people who you want to communicate and collaborate with: colleagues, neighbors, friends, family members and even your children. At the very least, it might introduce a pause and potentially even reduce any eye-rolling behavior you might have developed as a signature response. Mine is definitely a nervous tic and has been with me since fourth grade. So, if you see me on Zoom with wide, nonblinking eyes, know that I am probably fighting annoyance and asking myself -- How might I be wrong?

Mary Churchill is associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University, where she also teaches in the higher education administration program. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis (spring 2021, Johns Hopkins University Press), which details the merger of Wheelock College and Boston University.

Quick note: There is something about listening to podcasts that makes me a better listener. During the 2019-20 academic year, I created three different podcasts about higher ed with three different collaborative groups. We are currently working on the third season for all three of these. We will begin recording episodes of "View From Venus" this week and we hope to launch next week, so stay tuned.

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Mary Churchill

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