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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Are You a C, W, or E?

We have been discussing character traits in teachers the past few weeks. Last week's discussion focused on anger, the after shocks of expressing it, and how we might eliminate anger from our make up. Today, I want to focus on three other character traits.

I ask my incoming or new university students to identify whether they are a C, a W, or an E. Most people can relate to one of these three character traits. Occasionally I will run into someone who claims all three. These traits are: Complaining, Whining, or Excuse Making.

C - Complaining

I think complaining is the second most common character trait after the trait of anger. There may be several reasons why someone complains. We might complain because we have a sense of superiority and a desire to show that we are better than another or know more about how things should be done. We might complain to express dissatisfaction, resentment, or annoyance. We might complain because we have a legitimate grievance. We might be venting a little to get things "off our chest."

Have you noticed that people generally do not complain to anyone who has the power to change the problem the person is complaining about? I find this absolutely fascinating, which leads me to think that the need to express our superiority or to vent are the reasons why we complain. Whatever our reasons for doing so, let me suggest that others do not enjoy listening to complaints. If you pay close attention, you will notice how folks begin to edge away from the complaining person inch by inch.

It does not really matter why or how we got to the state of being a complainer, it just matters that we work to eliminate this unpleasant character trait. I offer two suggestions:

  • Make your complaints to the person who has the power to address the complaints. If you are uncomfortable taking this step, then you might as well just give up the complaint entirely. "If you have the time to whine and complain about something then you have the time to do something about it." -- Anthony J. D'Angelo.
  • Develop an attitude of gratitude. It is difficult to complain about something when you are steering your focus in another direction. Look at things with an eye toward expressing appreciation and thankfulness. Find opportunities to offer encouragement and gratitude to others for their contributions or efforts. By looking for ways to bolster and support others, you will be turning your thoughts away from yourself and your need to wallow in unpleasantness and focusing instead on someone other than yourself. You will be involved in making the world a better place rather than expressing ways of tearing the world down.

What should you do when someone complains to you? I find that the easiest solution is to edge away by inches yourself and then be careful about associating with that person in the future. I do not spend time arguing with a complainer or offering a more positive perspective. I find that when I try to do so, I just encourage the complainer to entrench more deeply in their complaining position. I save my breath, my energy, and my optimism by smiling, finding a graceful way to excuse myself from the complaining conversation, and seeking to follow a more productive pursuit. I find it helpful to plan in advance and have a list of possible activities to offer as a reasonable escape, such as a visit to the restroom, returning a phone call, or getting to an appointment on time.

"Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self control to be understanding and forgiving." -- Dale Carnegie (American lecturer and author, 1888-1955)

W - Whining

Most of us have experienced whining from the receiving end. For those of you who have not, imagine putting a car into neutral gear and then stepping on the gas pedal. The sustained high pitch noise you would hear is what whining sounds like to those of us who have to hear it from a child or another person. Parents can relate to feelings of exasperation and annoyance that come from hearing a whining child.

What is whining anyway? As my car example shows, whining is a lot of unproductive noise. The engine whines but the car does not move. People whine and make noise but do not necessarily do anything. However, whining may annoy others to the point that THEY do something. Remember the old adage about the squeaky wheel getting the grease?

Our society today seems not to frown on whining as much as I think should be the case. To me, whining is a form of rebellion. The whining child or adult is actually saying "No!" Whenever I hear whining, I remind myself that if words were to replace the whining, how I would respond? My answer is that I would usually respond quickly to address the rebellion problem. I believe that parents and teachers or others with authority over the child should not permit a child to respond in a rebellious way to instructions or directions, just as I believe that we should not respond inappropriately to each other as adults. [Remind me to tell you sometime about my name tag theory].

I understand that there are folks who believe that children do not have the cognitive reasoning to actually design their whining and other behavior traits to accomplish such negative purposes. However, I remember one young student of about 6 or 7 years old who was using a whiny voice about something. I looked her in the eye and said, "You're using your whiny voice. Do you find that works for you?" I was being sarcastic, of course, but the child's answer was, "It doesn't work on my mom, but it sure works great on my dad!" The mother's look at her child's comment was very entertaining!

One parent told her child that the parent had something wrong with her ears, and when her child spoke in a "baby voice" (whiny voice), the parent could not hear what the child said. Another parent blended a special "whine medicine," which consisted of several nasty tastes all mixed together (e.g., ketchup, grapefruit juice, Tabasco drops). An older child in the family helped by "confiding" in the younger child how awful tasting the whine medicine was. When the parent said they would have to get the whine medicine to cure the child's whine, the older child would quickly chime in, "Yuck! You don't want to take the whine medicine!"

A child may whine because whining puts the child in charge of the parents and because whining produces results from the child's point of view. If you have ever given a child what the child whined about, then you have reinforced the child's understanding that whining produces results. Dr. Kevin Leman says that you should never, ever, pay off whining with any kind of reward or benefit. Never, ever.

Dr. Leman states that a child's behavior problems generally relate to the child's need for one of two things: the parent's attention and to get what the child wants. If you ignore the whining and never, ever, reward it, then you will have removed both of the child's purposes. The child will need to look for another way to get what he or she wants, and the child can be guided to do so in a more appropriate and acceptable way. In my household and studio, whining will net the immediate response of "no." Whatever it is that is being whined about will not happen. I guarantee it. That is my "punishment" for having to suffer through the whining. This may sound harsh to some, but I will tell you that whining does not happen in my studio. Ever.  At least it does not happen to me. It may happen to a parent, but we work on that as part of the teaching and learning process. Remember, I teach the parents as much as I teach the student. Teaching the Suzuki Method is more than just teaching music.

What if you are the whiner? Is it possible for an adult to whine? Of course it is. Remember, whining is a way that many folks have learned to use in order to get something. Unfortunately, the kind of attention whining generates is negative, and whining is not a very mature (or attractive) behavior. Whining is certainly not a seemly behavior in an adult.

If you are a whiner, pay attention to how much noise you make with talk that is unproductive. Focus on what it is you want or need and learn how to ask for it in a mature way. If it is your child who whines, then teach the child how to ask for things appropriately. Do not reward any inappropriate behavior. Nip this obnoxious whining habit right away at every opportunity. Learn to say "please, may I?" and to accept the word "no." Teach your child to do the same.

"While others may argue about whether the world ends with a bang or a whimper, I just want to make sure mine doesn't end with a whine." -- Barbara Gordon

E - Excuse Maker

If you are an excuse maker, then you have the habit of making excuses to avoid blame or being held responsible for some act or other. I find this to be a disturbing character trait, because a person who makes excuses as a way of life is also someone who avoids taking personal responsibility for their actions and who tends to blame others for the personal failings of the excuse maker.

"Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses." -- George Washington

This is a tricky character trait, because we have all done this at some point or another. One way to really learn something about yourself is to avoid making excuses and to say instead, "I'm sorry." The expression of these simple words rather than some lengthy excuse or other will reveal so much more depth to our thinking and way of living.

The next time you are late somewhere, do not be so quick to excuse yourself. Start out with "I'm sorry," and then see where that leads you. Instead of saying, "I had a flat tire," or "traffic was terrible," apologize first and then give the REAL reason why you are late, e.g., "I did not leave enough time for travel holdups."

The new habit of not making excuses will also reveal something else of yourself that you might have been hiding from your view. I recall a colleague of mine once telling me that he made a commitment to stop making excuses. Later when he was asked whether he had given a recital during the previous year, he began his explanation with an excuse to explain why he had failed to give a recital. He stopped himself and found that by not allowing himself to give an excuse, he felt compelled instead to look inward and deal with the true reason why he had not given a recital.

"It is wise to direct your anger towards problems -- not people; to focus your energies on answers -- not excuses." -- William Arthur Ward

To summarize: complaining, whining, and making excuses are not attractive or productive character traits in a teacher or anyone else. To build a new habit to avoid these behaviors will take practice. Look for ways to recognize and express gratitude and appreciation. If you make complaints, make sure you make them to someone who has the power to do something about the complaints. Make sure you know how to express yourself appropriately and maturely when you ask for something that you want or when you are told "no." Lastly, make sure you forego excuse making. Instead, begin with an apology ("I'm sorry") and follow that with the real reason behind your actions.

Let me know which of these three character traits you identify with and some of your experiences. Personally, I struggle with the C issue. I work fervently to find ways to be positive, thankful, and gracious. I look for ways to weed out any issues of pride or arrogance. I am not a whiner, so that issue was a nonstarter. I did consider excuse making, but I found it easy to start with "I'm sorry" and acknowledge my actual reasons. I focus most of my attention on the complaining issue.

What about you? What do you struggle with? How do you handle these issues?

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