by Matt Thomas, Ed.D.
Author and poet David Whyte tells the story of a man who married when he was young. In the early years of his marriage, the man regularly seemed frustrated, out of sorts, and even irritated at his new spouse. When asked about his sour attitude, the young man answered, “The woman I have pledged to spend the rest of my life with wants to talk about the same thing every day, every night, and every weekend.” The topic? The quality of their relationship.
Finally, the young man gathered the courage to ask his new wife, “Why must we continue to have the same conversation over and over, day after day? Could we not just have one conversation and then be done for the year?”
Apparently not. Because at age 42, the couple was still having the same conversation. Only this time, after all these years, the man now realized, “the ongoing conversation the couple had been having was not actually about the relationship, it was the relationship.”
The lesson, Whyte says, is simple: the conversation is the relationship, and if the conversation stops, the relationship dies.
This story could not be more appropriate for Christian leaders. Too often, leaders find themselves being annoyed by that which is central to their calling. Rather than pursuing those we are to serve, we pursue solitude; but where solitary leadership exists, isolation is bred.
Solomon addresses the fallout that occurs when solitary leadership is an accepted norm.
Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. Proverbs 18:1.
It can be an easy move to hide behind a desk and work on projects from mission control or to create distance by refraining from taking relationships deeper. It’s easy to succumb to the growing complexities related to school and classroom leadership and look for ways to separate yourself from the organisms within the organization. But, compassionate leadership compels us to step out, to seek others, to converse.
Compassionate leaders find ways to foster the conversation. Here are three tips that may increase the relational standing and well-being of those within your school or classroom.
1. Assess how compassionate you really are.
Being able to demonstrate compassion begins with an assessment of yourself. Here are a few questions to ask yourself,
Depending on your answer, there may need to be several adjustments made internally before compassion will ever be a description of your leadership. It’s important to take the pulse of relationships by honestly asking yourself these questions, but a more productive outcome may result when you check in with others to learn how compassionate you’ve been.
I’ve always admired C.S. Lewis’s ability to see himself as he is. In Surprised by Joy, he transparently shares an observation to which we can relate. He characterized his inward man as “a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, and a harem of hatreds.” Lewis knew that he was not always operating from a disposition of love and holiness, just as we might not always operate from a base camp of compassion.
2. Cancel the culture of “niceness.”
Being nice is nice, but being nice often replaces genuine interactions with a surface level conversation. Leaders fail to show people that the relationship matters when they keep the conversation at a superficial level. Effective conversations call leaders to praise what is worthy of praise and to confront what needs to be confronted. Whether it be an attitude, a performance, or a behavior, genuine interactions strengthen the relationship so these areas can be addressed appropriately and healthily.
How can leaders do this well? Try answering the following questions.
The most valuable currency a leader has is the relationship they share with each individual in the school. Therefore, invest wisely.
3. Always converse with compassion.
More than one person has told me that when I discuss a matter for which I care deeply, I can come across with great “passion.” My wife gave me the same helpful feedback early in our marriage. She said, “I know you’re not upset, your just passionate.” She’s right!
Because we are human, we naturally talk emotionally first and rationally second. Leaders can become so focused on a plan to share, a lesson to give, or communicating a point that strong emotions are displayed without our awareness. And, because my intent is always to be compelling, I may forget that the recipient of my emotive outburst does not share that same understanding. Whether intentional or not, everything we say leaves an emotional wake. I’ve personally seen this in my conversations with my colleagues and at other times with my children. What I’ve learned and am oft reminded of is there is never an excuse to convey such emotion and in turn, justify it as passion. Rather as Christ-followers, we must converse with compassion because we believe that our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time.
Here are some practices that have served me well,
May we strive to be leaders who others naturally endear themselves to because of the honest, open, and meaningful conversations we refuse to let die.
Don’t stop the conversation.