Over the Net! – The Educational Imposters
The Educational Imposters

Over the Net!

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I feel that you don’t care about my workload…”

You’re not making this subject a priority

You’re only thinking about your own perspective..”

You have a poor attitude which is interfering with your performance…”

Phrases like this are not uncommon in everyday life and can even be heard in schools, whether it’s between colleagues or in interactions between staff and students. I’ll admit that in the heat of the moment I’ve used phrases like this myself. It’s easy to think that you’re giving feedback when you talk like this, but as David Bradford and Carol Robin point out in their recently published book ConnectBuilding Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends and Colleagues, this is falling into a trap of thinking we know someone else’s motives and intentions and the result can be very damaging.

Let’s take the example where a colleague, Sue, arrives late for an important meeting with me for the third time. It would be easy for me to launch into a conversation about how she isn’t prioritising this meeting and she doesn’t care. Bradford and Robin would describe this kind of talk as “over the net”. They explain that in fact there are three realities that exist:

By making statements like the ones above, I am not staying on my side of the net. If I stick with reality I can raise issues in a direct-non accusatory way that helps both of us. Perhaps: “Sue, this is the third time you’ve been late for our meeting. This makes me feel flustered and irritated.  Is there something going on which is making you late?” might be a better opener. I stay on my side of the net, describing the impact of Sue’s behaviour on me without Sue feeling misunderstood or attacked. 

Bradford and Robin explain that relationships often break down because people don’t stay on their side of the net, and we fall into the trap of thinking we know the other person’s intent or motives. This makes feedback accusatory and increases tensions, causing hurt and defensiveness. 

I found this really interesting to read, and couldn’t help but think of conversations with colleagues and students where I may have made this mistake, and unknowingly escalated a situation when I thought I was just giving feedback. Since then, I have tried to focus on staying on my side of the net in my interactions, and the results have been quite remarkable. I could tell student X that he has a poor attitude and that is causing him to fall behind in History. This would make him feel defensive, and also doesn’t tell him what exactly he’s done wrong or needs to work on. Instead I said to student X, “I noticed that you were chatting a lot in today’s lesson and when I asked you to stop you argued back or carried on talking. If we have a look at your book from today, you haven’t completed the work and I’m worried you will not be able to answer the exam question next week.” This had a completely different effect. Student X apologised, we agreed he would move seats and his attitude improved. 

One other point: This kind of feedback requires using vocabulary about how certain behaviour makes us feel. Bradford and Robin emphasise that we need to be careful with the language we use. “I feel that” or “I feel like” are thoughts, not feelings:

Think of the difference between “I feel irritated and dismissed” and “I feel that you don’t care.” The shift in language might be subtle, but the impact is profound. “I feel that you don’t really care about my opinion” contains no feeling words, although it is likely that there are some strong feelings unstated! (Note that you could drop the “I feel that” and the sentence would not change.) “I feel irritated and dismissed” is a statement about me whereas “I feel that you don’t care” is an accusation that is likely to cause defensiveness.”

There are many more interesting and relevant aspects of the book and some excellent case studies, but “Over the net” in particular has been so revelatory to me and has had a real impact in improving some difficult relationships.

Rachel

This podcast is an excellent starter if you are interested in the book Connect.

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