One day when I was a teacher, I had a surprise opportunity to practice what I had learned about directing thoughts. As soon as I walked in the door I noticed a red light flashing on my phone, indicating there was a message. At that time in my life I no longer coached basketball, so messages on my phone became almost nonexistent.
After checking voicemail, I discovered I was scheduled to have a parent-teacher conference that morning! I had all of ten minutes to get prepared and head to the office. When I arrived, the student, her parents, the principal, and the counselor were all in the conference room waiting for me. I felt like Custer must have felt when he became aware of the reality of his predicament during the last stand. My stomach began to turn as I walked through the door to the conference room.
After going through the formalities of all the introductions, the principal said, “We have all gathered here to offer our support to Susie [note: names have been changed for confidentiality]. She seems to be struggling in Social Studies,” then turning to Susie’s parents continued, “and we want you both to know that we all have her best interest in mind.”
Gauging Emotions in Others
I looked around the room to gauge the emotional state of the others. Mrs. Johnson, the principal, seemed cool and composed. It didn’t look as though anything could faze her. That was one of the things I respected about her. She was professional to the core. She was in her mid-forties but kept herself in excellent physical shape and her slender figure wore the business attire well, which included a black jacket and skirt to go along with a white blouse. Her long dark curly hair had yet to yield to the grey associated with aging and her posture was always impeccable.
The counselor was sitting comfortably with a sort of half smile on her round face. Her eyes danced excitedly and she seemed to be in her element. She was well respected by the staff and it was obvious that she loved her job. I felt myself smile back at her when our eyes met and the churning in my stomach went away.
Susie’s parents didn’t look nearly as comfortable as either the principal or the counselor, especially the father, who wore a hard expression on his face. He was sporting a blue business suit that looked like it was worn by a model on the cover of business weekly. He was clean-shaven with short well-groomed hair that was parted neatly to the side. He too was in his mid-forties but, unlike Mrs. Johnson, had plenty of grey hair to indicate his age. His face wore the expression of someone who didn’t care much about anything other than his trade, and he looked as though he had one foot out the door already, looking anxious to get the meeting over with so he could get to work.
Susie’s mother looked slightly uncomfortable, as if she was concerned with what her husband might say or do. She kept looking at him like she was trying to gauge his mental state. She was a small, timid looking woman with straight, shoulder length, strawberry-blonde hair. She was wearing a summer dress with red and purple flowers that seemed to be praising nature.
The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree
Susie was a spitting image of her mother; at least from a physical standpoint. Their hair looked identical and she was wearing a summer dress like her mother’s. She had a soft complexion with rosy red cheeks. However, her facial expression was hardened like her father’s. She looked like she had one foot out the door as well, as if she had better things to do than to sit in this meeting with all these adults.
The counselor turned to Susie and asked, “So how do you think it’s going in your Social Studies class Susie?”
Susie’s expression soured and she said, “Not very good. I got an ‘F’ on my last paper and it really affected my grade. I don’t see how my grade could have gone down so much.” Then she looked at me as if she was asking for an explanation.
Noticing Subtle Feelings
I felt the churning in my stomach return as all eyes turned toward me. I said, “The paper was worth thirty percent of your grade so it’s not surprising that your overall score was affected so significantly. But you can still do the alternate assignment I gave you to raise your score.”
Then the mother said, “Mr. Beers gave you an alternative assignment? Why don’t you just do that?”
“I still don’t see the point of doing the first assignment. I think it was a waste of my time. There is no way I am going to do another one!” Susie’s face turned flush and her forehead wrinkled as she emphasized her last point by placing both hands on the table and pushing her chair back.
Then Susie’s dad said, “Can’t you just allow her to fix the first assignment and turn it back in? I don’t see why she should have to do a different one. These kids are busy enough as it is!” His hard expression remained unchanged and only a slight elevation in the tone of his voice betrayed his rising anger.
Susie’s mother, as if she was aware of her husband’s change in emotions and wanted to help keep them in check said, “Mr. Beers offered an alternative assignment. I would like to hear what he has to say about that assignment so we can get past this whole thing. Mr. Beers, would you explain what would be necessary for Susie to do for this alternate assignment?”
Recognizing the Emotions in Me
I had already recognized the feelings growing in my own body and had turned attention to them while Susie and her parents talked, causing them to all but dissipate. I realized the feelings I was having might cause me to look upon the father and daughter in a negative way in the future. I had always had a good relationship with this particular family and wanted that to continue. I thought to myself, What do I want to have happen here? I immediately concluded that I wanted the family to know I wasn’t making the grade personal; I only wanted to help Susie.
I turned to the mother to respond, “Actually, I did give Susie the option of fixing the first assignment but she chose not to. That is why I offered her the alternate assignment. I had hoped that she could find a topic she found more interesting and then find the motivation to write the paper.”
I then thought back to the question about what I wanted to have happen. I realized the mother was not reacting in a negative way, so I turned attention to the potential result of the mother talking to the other two and helping them to understand my position. After all, I did have Susie’s best interest in mind. That made me feel good so I kept attention there.
Redirect Attention to Get What You Want
For the rest of the conversation, whenever my attention turned to negative thoughts being expressed by Susie and her father, I intentionally redirected attention to the reaction of the mother and the potential understanding, and each time it made me feel better. The conversation turned from the destructive path it seemed to be headed to a constructive dialog that, in the end, seemed to make everyone in the room feel good about the meeting.
The group shared several laughs before it was all said and done and even the facial expressions of the father and daughter softened, causing me to realize the importance of directing the conversation to what I wanted to have happen. In this case, the mother and I wanted the same thing. We both wanted Susie to learn from the experience. Therefore, I kept all attention toward that goal, and the nature of the conversation became quite positive and productive.
A Happy Ending
On the way out the door the father came up to me and patted me on the back. With a warm smile he said, “I would like my daughter to apologize to you. I don’t like the way she talked to you and want her to make it right.”
I responded, “That won’t be necessary. Susie was frustrated and she was simply expressing some of those frustrations. It seems we all have a better understanding than we had before. That was the purpose of the meeting. I’m sure things will be better in class.”
The father thanked me for my time and consideration and exited quietly. I felt invigorated. What a contrast to how I was feeling at the beginning of the meeting! As I walked out the door I realized that, overall, that was the outcome I had hoped for. It certainly appeared I created the result by turning attention toward what made me feel good, and then continuing to redirect the thoughts in that way. I set the intention to continue the practice and have been using it ever since. It has always helped to establish constructive interactions.
To learn more about processing emotions see my book, Peace: The Art of Mindfulness to Eliminate Stress.