Author Archives: Natalie

Getting Clear (or not) and Exerting Power (or not)

My first inclination was to name this entry “Failing at Homework,” but I stopped myself because I’ve just read Eugene’s piece about power dynamics and just watched Amy Cuddy’s TED talk, and they both remind me of how I disempower myself before anybody else can even take a stab at it.

My plan this week was to determine how I wanted to contribute to the project at hand, and not wait for my role to be completely dictated by someone else. As Eugene pointed out to me, the first step was to get clear with myself what I want my role to be, and – sure enough – I never got there. In the meantime, the universe decided to pitch in; a critical person on the project is very ill and unable to continue working on it, and my efforts are more necessary than ever. Not that this defines exactly what I’ll do, which is still fuzzy, but it ensures my participation. I’ve had so much competing work thrown at me recently that I wasn’t even taking that for granted.

So what’s my barrier to deciding what I’d like to do and requesting it? Why do I have such trouble exerting power? It sounds like the beginning of a long therapy session, but no doubt it has to do with gender dynamics, childhood upbringing, fear of failure, and karmic lessons. I’m tempted to start faking it, as Amy Cuddy suggests, but I also fear becoming obnoxious. I guess I associate power with strident, cocky, unlikeable people. Surely there are exceptions, but now I realize that there’s not much I admire about the exertion of power.

Perhaps there’s a quiet, gentle power that would be more my style than what I’m envisioning, and perhaps that’s what I need to explore. The type exerted in Twelve Angry Men is certainly not it!

Homework #2: Stories about changing perceptions

After a week of being far too busy and having my homework plans go out the window, I was finally able to ask a couple of people the following two questions:

  • What was the best experience you had making a shift in someone’s perception?
  • Why was it so great?

The first story revolved around my friend’s daughter coming home from grade school and announcing that she hated all boys.  Through a gentle exchange, pointing out flaws in this assertion, my friend saw her daughter soften her stance, which was never again repeated. In essence, the exchange went something like this:

“I don’t think you hate all boys, because your father and your brother are boys, and you love them.”
“Well, I hate all of them except for Dad and Nate.”
“OK. And didn’t you mention there was that one boy in your class who was kind of nice?”
“Oh, yeah. Well, he’s different. I don’t hate him.”
“And aren’t there a few girls in your class you don’t care for?”
“That’s right!”
“Do you think it might work better to just consider people on a case-by-case basis, rather than deciding based on whether they’re a boy or a girl?”
“Hmm. Maybe.”

The second story revolved around a homophobic aunt who came to town for a visit with my friend’s mother.  While the two sisters were visiting, my friend held a party that was also attended by a gay couple with whom she is very close.  On the flight home, the aunt asked her sister whether she thought the two men were gay. The sister said that she knew for a fact that they were, and went on to explain that she didn’t even give it a second thought anymore, given that they are such good friends and practically a part of the family. As she talked, she saw the aunt’s face soften, and could practically watch the wheels turning in her head as she considered this attitude.

The thread that I perceived in both these stories was that in the case of prejudice, meeting and knowing people in the suspect category makes all the difference in perception. Once you realize that the nice gay couple is really just a nice couple, period – or that when you think it through, you do know some boys who don’t smell bad and act like jerks, you can begin shifting from a hard stance to a more nuanced perspective.

Me, my project, my goals, and a question

I always have trouble introducing myself because introductions so often rely on stating one’s vocation, and that’s something I just can’t pin down. I’ve done a million things, working in publishing houses, law firms, a university, an English language school, an airline, a factory, a doughnut shop . . . and I’ve studied a few things, too: social sciences, law, Reiki, acupressure, multimedia development, nonprofit administration, usability analysis. But really, I’m just a dog-loving race walker who would love nothing more than to win the lottery so that I could take classes and travel, especially in South America. Work has always been a way to make a living, and I’ve never found work that I love.

As for my project, I’m feeling a bit sheepish because the project is just starting and my role is still undefined. Nonetheless, I’ll move forward as I were clear on my tasks. In essence, the nonprofit where I work is designing training materials for in-person training of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) adjudicators who determine whether to confer refugee status on applicants. The education is around LGBTI applicants, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa; understanding their claims and experiences, their special needs, and how to talk to them. Most adjudicators are locals who may hold the same prejudices and assumptions as the surrounding community, and may not even have the vocabulary to speak respectfully with these applicants for refugee status.

My primary goal is to learn more about adult education and learning retention. My secret agenda is that anything I learn here could be applied to ESL (English as a Second Language) teaching if I end up moving to Latin America again – or, perhaps, even if I stay stateside and work with English language learners here. Beyond all that, I really do care about making the world a better place for LGBTI refugees.

One of my questions is “Where can I learn more about teaching adults?” It’s a priority because I have never had any training in this area, despite having been an ESL teacher. I suspect there are learning differences with adults who choose to be in a learning setting, but who are busy and distracted, may bring prior knowledge of the subject that could conflict with the new information, and may have goals that diverge from the assumed goals of the training. Additionally, their brains may be different, and some may have memory problems. They may even be healing from a concussion!

As to how to go about answering this, I think I need to start by spending more time online, where there is surely a plethora of information. If I’m wrong, I’d probably hit the library next – but I doubt that will be necessary. One area in particular to check out are the MOOC sites, where I may be able to find online lectures. Much more challenging than the source of information will be the time to explore it.

This feels plenty long for this post, so I’ll leave it here for now.