Simmer Down and Listen More

Someplace between Utah and Minnesota. 

Someplace between Utah and Minnesota. 

I want to shift the conversation from a focus only on you…to a recognition that your own performance is either improved or diminished by the other people in your scenario. They hold power.
— Dr. Henry Cloud

As a graduate student, I received training in writing program administration, which simply means that I was trained, as much as is possible when in graduate school, to serve as an administrator in charge of a several writing courses, such as freshmen writing courses. This administrative role typically includes everything from teacher training to course curriculum development.

But after graduation, I got a job not as a writing program administrator, and I really struggled with adjusting from my graduate program leadership role to department contributor. Part of my struggle was wanting to put my graduate school knowledge and experience to good use. And I thought that "good use" meant a more visible leadership position. (You can read more about my journey to that realization here.) 

But in my excitement to contribute to a department (and frustration/annoyance that I wasn't contributing in the right ways), I got caught up in the end result and not the process: building  relationships with the people who were vital to the end result.

In my head I was impatient to start the process of “making things better.” I sought out those opportunities to get involved in curriculum development or teacher training. But I was resistant to accepting that change is slow. I’m a get-things-done kind of person, that getting people involved and on-board is more than just making policy changes. It’s about building relationships.

Dr. Henry Cloud, a clinical psychologist and leadership expert, explains the importance of relationships in his new book The Power of the Other: The Startling Effect Other People Have On You, From the Boardroom to the Bedroom and Beyond. He writes about the power of people this way:  

"The undeniable reality is that how well you do in life and in business depends not only on what you do and how you do it, your skills and competencies, but also on who is going it with you or to you” (9).

So what does this mean for me? It means that getting ideas implemented or getting conversations going depends on the people who are involved. I cannot require or force people to trust me, but I need their listening ears to share my ideas. I’ve realized this past year that building relationships with my colleagues is the most important goal, and my excitement to create change needs to simmer down. Way down.

Or put another way:

My expectations about my role needed to be adjusted. I am not the missing link that will miraculously usher forth change. 

Instead, my role is to be the connector of people who starts hallway conversations; who listens to people about their experiences, challenges, and successes; who finds ways to build relationships.

When working with people—and needing their support to create sustainable change—the relationships are the most important element to that change. There may always be an end goal in sight, but sometimes (usually?) that goal will happen in baby steps, which is okay. Real change cannot happen without also changing people’s hearts and minds. But to do that, the one with vision must also take the time to support and listen to the other people in the scenario. 

Ultimately, it's not all about me, my ideas, or where I feel most valued. Sure, those things are important to job satisfaction and overall happiness, but I'm now part of a team that has, combined, over 100+ years of academic administration and teaching experience. My colleagues have experiences, stories, and wisdom worth listening to and learning from. The wise thing to do would be to simmer down and listen more: more lunch dates, more coffee dates, more questions. 

This year is the year of listening for me. 

What about you?







On Being a Questioner; Or, How Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies Helped Me Better Understand Myself and Others

Caye Caulker, Belize

Caye Caulker, Belize

My mom used to tell us kids when we were growing up “if you are unsure about something, you need to ask.” It was a statement she repeated to us quite a bit, as I’m sure she wanted us to check in with her before doing something we didn’t really know how to do—like use the blender or fry an egg—but I’m equally sure that her statement intended to save her time from cleaning up our messes and mishaps. As a compliant firstborn who took all instruction to heart, I was always comfortable asking a lot of questions even when I didn’t need to simply because I didn’t want to get it wrong. Questioning myself (and others) has it downfalls, in that either (a) I can come across as challenging others’ judgements if I ask too many questions, and (b) I need to make sure that by asking questions, I’m not undermining my own authority and experience.

I didn’t really realize that being Questioner was part of my make-up, and not something that my mom taught me to do, until reading Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before, a book about habits. I picked up Rubin’s book after listening to her on Diane Sanfilippo and Liz Wolfe’s podcast Balanced Bites. What’s key here is that understanding how we develop habits has a lot to do with how we respond to inner and outer expectations. Rubin writes, "When we try to form a new habit, we set an expectation for ourselves. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand how we respond to expectations."

Are you one of those people who loves setting New Year’s Resolutions—either because you like to start the new year with a goal, or because you feel like you should? I don’t. I scoff at New Year's Resolution making, actually.  Because it’s an expectation that doesn’t make sense to me. Sure, maybe that expectation is either implicit or explicit depending on what kinds of circles you run in, but I realized a few years ago that I don’t really care about setting habits during the beginning of the year. And I certainly don’t care that “everyone else” is doing it or because it might be a tradition or yada yada yada. I want to be able to set habits whenever I want to. Not when it’s the popular thing to do. (And this is where Rubin’s point about expectations affecting habits made a lot of sense to me.)

In Rubin’s research on habits and expectations, she realized that there are four tendencies to how people respond to expectations. People are either Upholders, Obligers, Questioners, or Rebels, according to Rubin:

  • "Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations."
  • "Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified."
  • "Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations."
  • "Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike."

As a Questioner, I question expectations (asking “why”—a lot). I don’t mind meeting expectations if they make sense to me. So, if you knew me as a kid, or you’re wondering why I tagged myself as a “compliant firstborn,” it’s because, as a kid and young adult, it made sense to me to follow my parents’ expectations. It made sense to me to listen to my mom because—as I told myself—(a) she’s in charge, (b) she’s mom, so she must know better, and (c) I don’t want to get into trouble.

Rubin explains that Questioners are “motivated by reason, logic, and fairness. They wake up and think, “What needs to get done today, and why?” And this is what I do. I think about what needs to be done each day (or by month or semester), and then I decide what I want/need to accomplish and why. Again, it’s always “why?” So, if there’s a deadline, that’s a perfect reason why to meet an expectation. Or if I want to send out an article by the end of the summer, that’s also an excellent reason why. So, if upholding others’ expectations makes sense to me (which it usually does because I don’t like disappointing others), I’ll do it. 

What resonated the most with me about Rubin’s tendencies is that understanding people’s tendencies is freeing. When I realized that I, as a Questioner, questioned people’s expectations because it was a part of me and not just an annoying habit I had, I better understand the other people in my life. So, how does this impact the world around us? For one, the Rebel student won’t (always) ruffle my feathers when s/he is rebelling against my expectations. Or the colleague who is an Obliger? Well, now I better understand why s/he goes above and beyond to keep people happy when I could care less. Realizing that people’s tendencies has less to do with me and more to do with them has helped me understand and respond to discussions, disagreements, and arguments in a different way.

People’s tendencies are just that—parts of people. When people question my questions, or when people get annoyed with my questions, they are questioning and pushing against my tendency. I’m not trying to be annoying. And I’m certainly not purposely challenging authority. But I want to make sense of it all, so I can decide if and how I want to respond to expectations.

Now, this isn’t to say that Rebels won’t question or Obligers won’t rebel. And it’s also not to say that Rebels should be given free-reign to rebel, or that Obligers should be given free-reign to oblige. These tendencies have their downsides, too, if they are allowed to get out-of-control. In fact, on Rubin’s podcast, Happier, she discusses at length the four tendencies and how to get along with people who have different tendencies. I encourage you to check it out episode 013 (for an intro on the Four Tendencies) and episodes 035-038 (the Four Tendencies explained in detail).  

My greatest takeaway is that we don’t need to be offended, affronted, or annoyed by other people’s tendencies. It is what it is. Working and living with Upholders, Obligers, Questioners, and Rebels just means that we each have a natural way of responding to expectations that are different. And the sooner we realize that it’s not always about us, the better relationships we’ll have with those around us.


Are you a Questioner, Rebel, Upholder, or Obliger? Take Rubin’s Four Tendencies Quiz let me know what you think! Let’s connect on Twitter @GeneseaC or on Instagram @CattingWithAlice.