Thank you for not suggesting

Hello and welcome.

How are you?
I am fine thank you.

Ok, please get comfortable.

Close your eyes.

Shit, wait, not yet. Open your eyes and read this. Keep your eyes open and read and then close them when I ask you to.

Oh gosh. This is complicated.

Let’s try this again, When I say “go” close your eyes and try to remember the last few suggestions you received. These can be related to teaching or general. Go!

(This is where you remember the suggestions you have received most recently.)

Are you back?

What were the suggestions?

Did you follow them?

Why? Why not?

If you are like me (and I suspect like many (most?) people) you probably didn’t follow them. Again, if you are like me you might have thanked the person but figured they didn’t really know the whole situation and thought about doing something else. Maybe you thought it was a good idea but immediately found problems with it and decided you probably wouldn’t be implementing it anytime soon. Maybe you didn’t even think you were talking about a problem that needed solving and were slightly taken aback at the unrequested suggestions.

Maybe you loved the suggestions and they changed your life. If so, my experience is different.

If you did follow the suggestions, I am guessing it is because you had already decided it was a problem or an issue worth solving and the suggestion fit nicely into that. I am guessing that you were already at a stage where you were ready for suggestions. Perhaps you were stuck and had gone as far along on this issue as you could without help from another.

Sometimes I find myself sharing what I think is a story or an interesting aspect of teaching or my context and the person I am talking to jumps in and just solves the problem for me. I (generally) do appreciate the help and care that it implies but in such situation I am typically not actually actively seeking out solutions. I am just sharing. Or maybe even venting. People venting tend not to want solutions, in my experience. I think they just want to be heard and understood. So, in these situations when I am just sharing or venting I find suggestions to be particularly grating. Again, maybe I am alone in this or maybe I am hyper aware of suggestions so they impact me more than they do others.

I have a friend and colleague who makes this distinction between seeking suggestions and venting  very clear. If venting she will say, “I am just venting.” If she is listening to someone talk and it sounds like venting she will often clarify if it is venting or if it is a time for potential solutions. I love this question and I love the clarity that comes with it. I have not really employed this strategy very much but I think I’d like to. I can say that I am a much different (and probably better) listener when it’s clear I am just listening and connecting and  not participating in a problem solving situation. Specifically, sometimes I find myself waiting to impart my ideas, drop knowledge bombs and dispense suggestions instead of fully listening. But, when I know this is not the time for this I can be a much more attentive listener.

I think I have been blessed working with colleagues like the one mentioned above. I must also give credit to another colleague who helped me see that my litany of suggestions and improvements for his sessions were not necessarily what he was looking for all the time. It has been very helpful for me and I have learned a great deal. I also think it sometimes makes such communication with people who don’t follow this line of thinking more difficult and surprising. I’d rather not give examples examples where I felt wronged or overly suggested upon so I will just make one up. Here I go…This one time, I was telling a teaching friend about a student that I have and how it was a challenge for me to work with her. It was a stressful experience for me and I don’t think I had handled things with this student very well. I acted a lot more emotionally than I would have liked. I know that my actions and reactions were not perfect. Anyway, before hearing the full story my friend had a list of things I could and *should have done. I was fully ready to admit that I hadn’t handled things well but I wasn’t really interested in hearing what I’d done wrong (partially because I was already aware of it). I was also not really interested in hearing ways to manage and repair things with that student either. I guess I was just hoping to be heard and empathized with. When I got criticism and suggestions for future actions I didn’t get any of what I was looking for and more than enough of what I was not looking for. Frustration set in and I thought to myself, “This conversation is not going well for me” and wondered how I could avoid such situations with this friend in the future.

I don’t think it is really fair of me to blame my friend who was giving out the suggestions. I think he was sincerely just trying to help. Maybe he was trying to help in accordance with the way he thought he was helped in the past. He was also doing what is pretty much a normal thing in the world.  Hear a problem, share a solution. I think this is pretty normal in the world and surely in the teaching world. I certainly don’t want to blame my friend for operating in what is a completely normal and usual way. If anything, I am more tempted to think about ways to “own” such conversations in the future and be clear about when and if I am seeking suggestions (and when I am not). Also, unfortunately, I wondered if it was worth it to share such things with this friend and thought I would be careful about sharing things that could be construed as a request for suggestions.

It seems to me that the type of suggestions we typically get might be along the lines of “What I would do if I were the teacher” or What you *should be doing.” No thanks. Subconscious or not, I think these are the suggestions that are more likely to be disregarded by the listener. Personally, as a listener, I am much more comfortable hearing about what another teacher does and their impressions of it, rather than as a suggestion or a template for me to use.

The other thing that comes to mind when I think about suggestions for teachers is that it sort of cuts out the reflective process. Jumping straight to an action point without a clear picture of what happened or potential interpretations of it or other analysis on the issue strikes me as a very quick jump and sort of circumvents reflection. Also, I feel like if I come up with an action plan I am much more likely to follow this than someone foisted on me by another.

Personally, (in addition to the aforementioned venting or trying to connect) I might share some story or challenge related to teaching to get a fresh perspective on it, but that doesn’t mean I am looking for “the answer” from my interlocutor on that particular day. It might be arrogance on my part but I think I am much more likely to find a suitable answer or plan on my own but I do welcome people helping me sort through my thoughts on the issue. I wonder if this is just me or if others feel the same way.

I’ll not add suggestions here in this post to deal with this problem of suggestions but I will share my hope that readers are a bit more aware of the next few suggestions they give out.
Thanks as always for reading and any comments are welcome.

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19 comments

  1. ALiCe__M

    Maybe people giving out “suggestions” do so because of the pressure of “performance” and “action” that is so prevalent in our society. So instead of listening, they think of a way of being “useful” to “actively do something” to solve the problem. Unfortunately “listening” is not considered as “active” as “speaking”. That’s why many students undervalue their comprehension skills.

    • mikecorea

      Very good point and very well said, Alice. I think there is a certain pressure to “perform” and this could very much be a part of it. I think this relates to me feeling relaxed and a better listener when I know I don’t need to give suggestions at the end.

      I really like your point here for teachers, students and people. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Laura Adele Soracco

    I find that sometimes the “solution” (lesson learned or revised plan of action) comes to me from just processing what happened. Sometimes that happens as I journal about a particular lesson, sometimes it happens when I chat with a co-worker. I appreciate hearing suggestions, but ultimately I do think that the best way to change a situation is to try and understand what we did and how we feel about it in the first place. Ironically, the way I feel and the way I act when others tell me about problematic situations related to teaching is not the same; your post was a good reminder for me to be more of a listener. I totally fall in the realm of the co-worker who listens and tries to offer advice right away –part of it comes from that genuine desire to help, part of it is definitely my own need to be a better listener. Great post, Mike!

    • mikecorea

      Hi Laura!

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I like your point here about “the solution” coming from the processing. That matches with my experience. I don’t find the immediate solutions from others (or myself for that matter) tend to work as well as those that are “earned” by thinking things through.

      I am glad you enjoyed the post and also glad you found it to be a useful reminder. You might not be surprised that a good % of what I write is in many ways a reminder for myself or a hard-earned lesson. 🙂 I think it is only natural to want to help and to offer suggestions in order to do so. Hopefully I am much more aware of this than I was in the past.

      A friend on twitter mentioned that maybe as teachers we are so accustomed to giving help and advice that we just think this is the way to go in daily life as well. Something to think about, I feel.

  3. stevebrown70

    I think if you read any of those self-help-type books that “explain” why men and women don’t understand each other (not that I do, but I have been in relationships with people who have and have and am therefore familiar with their gist), you will find that this topic features quite heavily. According to such books, when women mention a problem they are having, they’re not actually looking for suggestions or solutions, they just want sympathy and a hug. Men, on the other hand, tend to discuss problems with a view to finding a solution. Because they are less likely to ask for help (this is a sign of weakness), men tend to share their problems less frequently, leaving the females in their lives wondering why they won’t open up. Communication breakdowns also occur when the female half of the relationship describes a problem they are having and the man immediately offers a solution, leaving the woman still requiring the sympathy and hug she was really looking for.
    Of course, current thinking on gender issues and language use states that saying “men are like this and women are like that” is nonsense, based on flimsy or spurious evidence. Both genders are capable of demonstrating behavioural and linguistic traits that have been traditionally described as “masculine” or “feminine”. Deborah Cameron’s “The Myth of Mars and Venus” (OUP 2007) is a great place to start if you’re interested in this.
    I’m not sure how relevant this is to your original post, Mike, but it was reading your post that got me thinking down this track so I thought I’d share it.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks very much for the comments, Steve. As you saw, you were most certainly not alone in thinking of gender roles and self help books. Your mention of Cameron reminded me of something I wrote a long while back. If you ever wanted to see 4,000 words of me fumbling through gender, performance and socio-linguistics today is your lucky day!
      https://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/differences-in-language-and-gender/

      It also reminded me of these two (old) articles
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/oct/02/gender.familyandrelationships http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/oct/03/gender.politicsphilosophyandsociety1
      which I found readable and informative.

      The other thing that came to mind as I read your comments was an exchange from the movie, “White Men Can’t Jump” (believe it or not)

      Gloria: Honey?

      Gloria: My mouth is dry.

      Gloria: Honey. I’m thirsty.

      Billy: Umm…

      *Water Runs*

      Billy: There you go. honey.

      Gloria: When I said I was thirsty it doesn’t mean I want a glass of water.

      Billy: It doesn’t?

      Gloria: You’re missing the whole point of me saying I’m thirsty.

      Gloria: If I have a problem you’re not supposed to solve it.

      Gloria: Men always make the mistake of thinking they can solve a woman’s problem.

      Gloria: It makes them feel omnipotent.

      Billy: Omnipotent? Did you have a bad dream?

      Gloria: It’s a way of controlling a woman.

      Billy: Bringing them a glass of water?

      Gloria: Yes.

      Gloria: I read it in a magazine.

      Gloria: See. if I’m thirsty.

      Gloria: I don’t want a glass of water.

      Gloria: I want you to sympathize.

      Gloria: I want you to say, “Gloria I, too, know what it feels like to be thirsty. I too have had a dry mouth.”

      Gloria: I want you to connect with me through sharing and understanding the concept of dry mouthedness.

  4. Heidi Nam

    This reminds me of Deborah Tannen’s book You Just Don’t Understand. Tannen says that when people bring up problems in conversation, women tend to respond with (and expect) empathy but men tend to respond with (and expect) solutions. So clearly, Mike, you ought to stop expecting empathy as it just violates your whole gender role.. oh wait, did I just tell you what to do? Ah well, the whole Mars/Venus thing was meant to be rebelled against anyway.

      • mikecorea

        I am glad you noticed that, Steve! I was going to say that you are not so far off what others are thinking (Sophia’s comments are related as well).

    • mikecorea

      Hi Heidi,

      This ranks as among my favorite comments ever on the blog. I was actually thinking about this gender roles thing as I was writing it and wondered if anyone else would pick up on it.It seems to be a popular topic! I know you were just kidding about how I shouldn’t expect empathy as it violates my gender role but I am not convinced this line of thinking is rare. It is surely interesting to think about. I guess, according to what I wrote (and what I am thinking at the moment)suggestions are not going to stick unless the receiver acknowledges there is a problem worth solving. Thanks very much for the food for thought!

  5. SophiaSophia

    Wow. Had a lot of thoughts while reading this. LOL was one, because you said ‘shit’ early on (*snigger*). Then I felt a bit anxious in case I was That Person dispensing unwanted advice (it could have been, I do that). Then I wondered if you might be a woman because I have this exact same I AM JUST VENTING conversation with my partner at least once a month (oh – coincidence, or something more sinister?) Then Steve and Heidi beat me to that train of thought and also blew it out of the water. I guess it comes down to – nothing to do with gender – what your purpose is in communicating a given ‘problem’. So your friend’s clarification, I AM JUST VENTING, straight off the bat is great. With my OH I just tell him not to say anything and just make sympathetic noises. Same principle, I think. But this is the speaker taking sole esponsibility. A particular point I like from this post is that the listener also has a responsibility to interpret the purpose of a communication. To think ‘talking about a problem’ ALWAYS means ‘I must provide solutions’ is a lack of pragmatic competence, actually. This post has also given me some food for thought as a CELTA trainer. When solutions come as ‘advice’ from on high, does this mean we can somehow dismiss them more easily? Is there something that requires an exchange of actual experiences to really make that connection meaningful? I think there is, and have been thinking along these lines for a while, but this has helped me put my thoughts a bit more into focus. Anyway, what I am saying is, thanks for an interesting post 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments, Sophia. Very enjoyable to read! 🙂

      (BTW I just now learned OH)

      You wrote, “To think ‘talking about a problem’ ALWAYS means ‘I must provide solutions’ is a lack of pragmatic competence, actually.” Very good point. One thing I didn’t really touch on in the post is that it is sort of annoying (for me at least?) for to be responsibile for labeling what sort of conversation this is and I don’t know if it is or *should be my responsibility at all times. I appreciate my friend’s style on this becuase it provides a lot of clarity but maybe part of why I have not done it so much is because it feels aggressive or something like that.

      You mentioned your thoguhts on suggestions as a trainer. I tried to cover some of my thoughts on this in the follow up post but I think this is a key issue. Like, where is the suggestion coming from? Is it about best practices? is about what you (the trainee) needs to do to pass the course? Is it based on the learning (or lack) of the students? I think these are really key things to think about. And maybe some suggestions are just time savers and recepients can just take them on based on the experience of the trainer and the fact the trainer is at the front.. I still think people are more likelty to do long term changes when they actually believe there is a need for it.

      I think teachers just starting out are more accepting of suggestions (or rules or advice or whatever)

      You wrote, “When solutions come as ‘advice’ from on high, does this mean we can somehow dismiss them more easily?”
      Is there something that requires an exchange of actual experiences to really make that connection meaningful? I think there is, and have been thinking along these lines for a while, but this has helped me put my thoughts a bit more into focus.”

      The first question really caught my eye… My sense is that maybe we might follow such advice whilst on a course but afterwords
      we might choose to dismiss it or not follow it or think it was just for that situation or trainer or whatever.

      Anyway great questions and I am feeling like I am rambling so I shall stop here.
      Far be it for me to suggest a blog post topi but…

  6. ljiljana havran

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks a lot for one more very interesting and thought-provoking post.

    There are a few points I would like to comment here: first, I think that it is often much more important to be a good listener and to show empathy and understanding for someone who has a problem; and what really matters in some challenging situations is someone’s genuine support. It is counterproductive, in my opinion, when someone starts immediately explaining to you what you could (should) have done, making suggestions without really pondering the problem and understanding the situation completely, it seems to me as if he/she didn’t really care about all that very much.
    Then, I am (like you) maybe ‘hyper aware’ of suggestions, and prefer musing and exploring various possibilities and finding my own ways, and I think that finding a good solution to a problem takes time. This is my ‘key sentence’ in your post: ‘Personally, as a listener, I am much more comfortable hearing about what another teacher does and their impressions of it, rather than as a suggestion or a template for me to use.’ Maybe this is not analogous example, but it comes to my mind now; I usually prefer asking my students who speak English fluently to explain to other students how they learn English on their own out of school, instead of giving them my suggestions or advice.
    As for some comments on gender differences, in my opinion, what really exists are individual personality characteristics and differences, I have never believed in this ‘Men are from Mars women are from Venus’ gender difference (actually if it exists it is only socially induced).

    Enjoyed your post very much 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Thanks very much for the comments! You wrote, “, I think that it is often much more important to be a good listener and to show empathy and understanding for someone who has a problem; and what really matters in some challenging situations is someone’s genuine support. It is counterproductive, in my opinion, when someone starts immediately explaining to you what you could (should) have done, making suggestions without really pondering the problem and understanding the situation completely, it seems to me as if he/she didn’t really care about all that very much.” Interesting point. I guess my opinion is that they might actually care but are not aware what might be helpful. I think we are sort of trained to think suggestions are the way to be helpful. I don’t know.. just a thought.

      I fully agree with you about this Mars/Venus stuff! 🙂

  7. Matthew Walker

    I will try to omit anything that sounds like advice and just write to show I was ‘listening’ while reading. Just the other day my wife, who is also a teacher, was telling me about a problem she was having at school with a specific student. And I tried to offer a solution, something that she was not seeking. I immediately realized this as soon as the words left my mouth. I tried to scramble and take it back. But just as Mike’s colleague does, my wife was quick to tell me that this was just a listening opportunity for me. It is good to be reminded it is ‘okay to just listen’ at times. Thanks for sharing experiences on a topic that is important in all aspects of our lives.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Matthew,
      Thanks for the effort in not offering any suggestion in your response! Also, thank you for reading and for sharing the story you mentioned about your wife. I especially like this story because it shows the allure of helping and offering suggestions even when they are not wanted or expected. Nice to see that your wife was also ready to be clear on what she was (and was not) looking for in the conversation. Thanks again for sharing!

    • mikecorea

      Hello Matthew,
      Thanks for the effort in not offering any suggestion in your response! Also, thank you for reading and for sharing the story you mentioned about your wife. I especially like this story because it shows the allure of helping and offering suggestions even when they are not wanted or expected. Nice to see that your wife was also ready to be clear on what she was (and was not) looking for in the conversation. Thanks again for sharing!

  8. Pingback: follow up on the #waronsuggestions | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
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