Every other Thursday my advising team and our extended campus family reps gather for a two-hour marathon of a team meeting. During our busiest times, I sometimes cancel or shorten this meeting with hopes of lowering stress levels. I’ve remained adamant, however, about including some kind of team-building time in every meeting, even if it’s just a warm-up question to break the ice and reconnect. Not surprisingly, not everyone is excited about this when we’re super busy. Some feel their time would be better spent catching up in their offices; I believe team unity is a necessity if we’re to do our best work with students when we DO go back to our offices.
So when I decided for yesterday’s meeting, during one of our busiest times of the year, that we’d do nothing directly business-related and instead would engage as a team in a version of an activity from my August workshop, it felt a little like playing with fire.
We started by laughing at the crazy things we see this time of year–I always want my team to feel they can vent to each other, and I want them to continue to share the funny parts of their days (like the autocorrected student who told her advisor in an e-mail, “I apologize for any incontinence I’ve caused”). Humor is a brilliant way to keep us going on long busy days.
I shared with them my concern, though, that it’s easy to cross the line between venting and full-on negativity. That fine line, once crossed, allows negativity to become all-consuming. It reminds me of my Residence Hall Director experiences with trash in the hallways: if one piece of garbage was dropped, it invariably turned into two pieces, then four, and ultimately into a mountain of trash before could find a trash can. Our only hope was early intervention to stop the cycle–every time we saw it.
In advising, it’s easy to let one rough student encounter ruin a day. One person’s ruined day can infect another’s, and soon enough complaints about doing even the most basic of job tasks prevail. Amid that noise, it’s easy to lose awareness of the importance of each student interaction. SUU prides itself on students being individuals, not numbers. During a stampede of students demanding help, though, it’s easy to let our work become robotic–to lose our sense of purpose and awareness of the individuality of each student we see.
To begin the activity, then, I asked everyone to quiet that mental noise and be present in the room–to put away all electronic distractions and to do a short mindful breathing meditation (3 minutes, which was about all some of us could handle!) I then asked everyone to write their individual answers to the question, “What would you most like to change in your work/the way you do your work? What would you most like to improve?”
Next I asked that they choose the most important item from their list and complete the statement, “If there was/was more (most important item), there would be _______”. This lead to a new answer, and I asked that they repeat the process with that new answer. They did this with each new idea until they hit a dead end.
Next, each found a partner with whom they repeated that process for three rounds, this time verbally. They shared with their partners their last idea/statement, and the partner asked, “So, if there was/was more (last written idea), what would there be?” Each answered three times before trading roles with their partner.
Or that was the plan anyway.
What I learned VERY quickly? My team is wildly full of brilliant ideas and capable of making amazing connections, and their conversations are mind-blowing… But trying to keep them on track in an activity like this is pretty much pointless. It would have been counterproductive, really. In August, this activity led to a room full of silent duos speaking only to answer the assigned questions, with long thoughtful pauses and nodding heads in between. With my team, within about 45 seconds, the activity led to a room full of excitedly talking, gesturing, and laughing duos.
So, I rolled with it. Because when I asked for feedback, those who spoke up had great things to share. They talked about communication and relationships. They talked about focusing on beginnings instead of mentally jumping ahead during student interactions, allowing them to be fully present with students. They talked about openness and impact.
As the leader of that team, I couldn’t have been more grateful.
To wrap up, I reminded them that the values they were discussing are the bedrock of our work–the solid foundation of why we do what we do and how we it. As a physical take-away of that concept, I asked everyone to select a rock from a pile I had collected (and lovingly cleaned) the day before. I suggested that they write their foundational word on their rock, my hope being that in the midst of a crazy day, they might catch a glimpse of that rock and/or word, be reminded of their deepest value/purpose, and take a minute to come back to full awareness of that purpose before moving on to help the next student. I love what emerged:
Now, that didn’t stop some giggles about writing “kindness” on the rock just in cased anyone needed to be “killed with kindness” or choosing “knowledge” in case we needed to “drop some knowledge” on anyone. Ah, well. I think the message was still received.
Onward we roll.