Love them or hate them, fear them or get excited by them, conversations for change are an essential part of being not just an early childhood leader or teacher, but also fundamental to being human.
Even though our brains do not like change we need change. As a society are constantly striving for excellence and innovation. How can we do things better? How can we do this more efficiently? How can we work smarter not harder? What is the next big thing?
As teachers we are taught to reflect on our practice and how things are done. We undertake internal evaluations into the running of our rooms and centres, our policies and our pedagogy. We attend professional development or read literature, exposing us to new ideas and research provokes new thinking and action.
Why then are so many of us afraid of change and afraid of even having conversations with others about change? The answer to this is rooted in Emotional Literacy.
What is Emotional Literacy?
If we are emotionally literate we have self-awareness and recognise our own feelings and we know how to manage them. Emotional Literacy also includes being able to recognise and adapt to the feelings of other people, whilst at the same time, learning how to manage and express our own emotions effectively.
If our goal is to be effective change agents, we need to recognise that the reason why change and even having conversations for change, are difficult for us, is because we are having an emotional response.
You have activated the part of your brain called your amygdala which is essential to your ability to feel certain emotions and to perceive them in other people. You are in fact experiencing an amygdala hijack.
An amygdala hijack can be defined as:
“An Amygdala Hijack is an immediate and overwhelming emotional response out of proportion to the stimulus because it has triggered a more significant emotional threat. The amygdala is the part of our brain that handles emotions. During an Amygdala Hijack, the amygdala “hijacks” or shuts down the neo-cortex.” Daniel Goleman
Let me put this into context for you. You can see that change that needs to happen, you know why it needs to happen, you even know how to make the change happen. This is all perfectly rational and part of our neo-cortex function of our brain.
However, for most people the thought of change does not stay in our rational, thinking part of our brain. As human beings our brains are wired for our first response to be an emotional one. We get triggered by past experiences of change and feelings of fear and uncertainty and this causes an emotional response in our brains. This some cases can cause a physical response in us, like sweaty palms, a racing heart, feeling flushed, dry mouth and a queasy stomach. This is in short, an amygdala hijack and this is triggering your fight or flight reflex due to a perceived attack.
How do we move past this emotional response and take action?
You may not be able to control the emotional response, but you can control the thoughts that follow an emotion if you are aware of it. I will clarify this for you in the steps below:
- Recognise – Emotional literacy starts with you and your self-awareness. You need to recognise within yourself that you are in fact having an emotional reaction. Motivational speaker, Mel Robbins talks about using the five second rule in this instance. When you are experiencing an emotional response, recognise it for what it is and count backwards from five to one. This helps you to shift from the limbic part of your brain which controls emotions into your neo-cortex where you process rational thought.
- Observe the emotion impartially and name the emotion. For example, “I am feeling fear”.
- Analyse – Where did this feeling come from? Most feelings come from our past experiences, or the messages that we heard from others growing up, or as part of our cultural programming. We then use these to attach meaning to situations we are currently dealing with or faced with in the future.
For example, most people when faced with addressing practice in others or change, might have an internal dialogue of, “Why should they listen to me?” “If I give them feedback about their practice, they will look at me and see that I am not perfect all the time.” “If I suggest that we change this, it could cause disagreements.” “It might not work and then everyone with think badly of me, blame me for the failure or be angry with me.” “They will think that I am incompetent as leader.” “This will expose me as a fraud and that I don’t know what I am talking about.”
You might like to unpack some of this and write down the self-talk that is going on for you.
This where self-management comes in – rationally work through what you made things mean. What is the worst-case scenario? What is the likelihood of your worst-case scenario even happening?
Part of being emotionally literate is that you develop the mind-set that you don’t always get it right and you don’t always have to have all the answers. Our failures are just and opportunity for us to grow and learn new things about ourselves and others. One of the most powerful things that we can do as leaders is to admit it when we have made a mistake. Vulnerability inspires respect.
Being emotionally literate means that you are the quiet observer of your thoughts and emotions. Often, we’ve received a message about ourselves from an outside source, and real or perceived we hold onto it as TRUTH which robs us of our self-worth and self-confidence. When we become the objective observer of our thoughts, we can then intentionally recreate the narrative of who we are and who we were meant to be. Your subconscious mind believes everything you tell it. Feed it love, feed it kindness, feed it truth.
- Connect with your why – One of the most powerful tools you have is your vision. Why is the change necessary? Having self awareness and then knowing why, are your best tools to moving you from a state of fear and self-doubt and motivating you to take action.
Consider this scenario: Perhaps you are a teacher in a toddler’s room. You have noticed that meal-times and sleep times are chaotic. Children are being “herded” from one area to another with little or no connection between teachers and children. Children are given little or no choice and their natural rhythms and need to connect during care moments are not being respectfully met. Teachers have become “crowd control officers” and this is very stressful and not very empowering nor respectful for anyone.
This doesn’t sit right for you and you would like to make a change.
The first thing that you need to do is to decide, what you would like to happen in its place. Why this is important to you, the children and the other stake holders? You might like to curate research and readings as evidence for your vision. If you are still feeling unsure about having the conversation or making the change – ask yourself, what are the consequences if I do nothing? How will me not acting influence the rights of others and how does this resonate for me?
Once you are armed with your vision you can ignite the other part of your “why” – your passion!
You might be passionate about respectful interactions between teachers and children. You might feel passionate about children’s rights to have calm, respectful, emotionally satisfying care moments. You might feel passionate about creating a culture that is rooted in respect, kindness and peace.
In this moment, even though you are fearful of change and having a conversation for change with the other members in your team, you know why the change needs to happen. You are aware of the consequences for your inaction and you feel passionate about your vision.
You have the tools to manage your emotional state in order to take action. You are armed with the catalyst initiate a conversation for change.
Influencing others to change
Whether we successfully create change in our settings largely depends on whether you can get buy in from your fellow team members to make the change and to sustain it. This relies heavily on our emotional literacy skills in social awareness and social management.
Social awareness is our ability to have empathy for others as well as read the dynamics and power relationships of a group of people. Social management is our ability to motivate and inspire others to trust us and go on a journey with us. It is our ability to coach and mentor others, work together as part of a team as well as how to cope with and manage conflicts and barriers as they arise.
“The work get done through people, in order to influence we must first connect” Joelle Hadley.
If we look at this from a “conversation for change” context we can apply the following steps:
- Have empathy – The other members of your team are probably having similar emotional responses to change. Have some compassion for where they are and the emotions that they are experiencing. Recognise that they are having an emotional response, don’t take this as a personal attack against you and your vision. Instead give them space and help them to name the emotion. You might say something like, “I see that you are feeling angry do you want to talk to me about what is going on for you?”
- Choose the right time to share your vision – Early childhood centres are busy places. Choose a time when you can have everyone’s full attention, such as a staff meeting or non-contact time. Be clear and succinct about communicating your vision. Your vision, your “why” is what will drive passion and behaviour.
- Be aware of different personalities and power dynamics – Not everyone has the same motivators or ways that they like to be communicated with. What is their “why”, their values, passions and beliefs? Do you have values, passions and beliefs in common? How, can you motivate and inspire them to take a risk and trust you, to share your vision? This comes from being interested in others and getting to know them on a personal level.
According to Simon Sinek, “The very survival of the human race depends on our ability to surround ourselves with people who believe what we do. When we surround ourselves with people who believe what we believe trust emerges. Trust is a feeling that comes from common values and beliefs. When we surround ourselves with people who believe what we believe, we are more confident to take risks, to experiment and take chances.”
- Create a common goal – Get everyone on board through open and honest communication, share concerns and barriers that come up for people. Design a plan, problem solve strategies for success and create a time-line to keep everyone accountable.
- Acknowledge uncertainty and adversity – Discuss the fact that not everything will go according to plan all the time and setbacks are part of the process. Predict what some of these barriers to success might look like and how you will deal with this as a team when they arise. Reinforce that this a safe space to be curious together, reflect, refine and to make mistakes.
- Commitment – Commit to the vision – “the why” the plan and the process. You need to hold onto the vision and the passion, as a means to get through adversity and that takes discipline and commitment.
I would like to leave you with the following quote from Charles Darwin,
“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who survive, but those who can be manage change.”
Thank you for reading this blog if you find the subject of Emotional Literacy interesting and would like to unpack this further click here to find out about my upcoming workshop, The Emotionally Literate Teacher.
During this workshop we will dig deeper into Emotional Literacy. We will be inquiring as to why teachers need high levels of Emotional Literacy. We will be exploring tools to enhance your self-awareness, manage self as well as how to connect with others and enrich your relationships.