Tuesday, October 25, 2011

When Relationships Change, How Do You Know When to Let Go? Part 2

(Wow, so I guess I wasn't alone in thinking about changes in relationships! Part 1 garnered quite a response. I received some great notes on Twitter along the lines of making the difficult decision to let go, and, conversely, how to transform/transition a relationship into something different. Let's continue the conversation!). 
When we left off last Tuesday, I discussed taking some time and listening to your feelings about your friendship, both physically and emotionally. That task is both easy and difficult:  
Easy because you don't really have to do anything that involves the other person. Yet. 
Difficult because once your eyes are truly open to feelings of dissatisfaction or discomfort, it's extremely hard to close them again and move forward like things are normal. (A good friend of mine has a wonderful saying, "You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube.")
So what's next? 
Well, here comes the really challenging part:  Sorting out your feelings, dealing with them, and taking some action. Here is an initial step that was a recent epiphany for me:

-If you believe you want to hold on, ask yourself why.
I'm certainly not the only one with parent issues out there, so I'll tread lightly: When a parent-child relationship has a challenged history, I have realized that the child may not give himself/herself permission to do the choosing in friendships. 
I know that I have ignored my own desires to ask for certain needs to be met, or to reduce/cease contact with a friend, but I didn't listen to those signs. I didn't think I "deserved" to make such a decision.  
Maya Angelou has a quote that I love, love, love:  "When people show you who they are, believe them the first time." I have not always paid attention when others are sending me that message. Where does this blind eye come from? My past, for sure! If you have family of origin issues that made you feel "less than" as a child, as an adult, you have a right to choose relationships that make you feel, well, "more than" (for lack of a better contrast!). Think about if you are holding on to a friendship because you don't feel that you have the right to decide that it's no longer appropriate for you.  
The next action step involves talking with your friend. I'll preface by saying that these are the conversations that no one ever wants to have, but have the greatest power for us as healthy and connected interpersonal communicators! As you bring up your concerns with your friend, you are going to learn a ton about yourself and about them. This conversation may help you transform your relationship more positively...  or it may give you the facts you need to make a needed break. Here goes:
-Schedule a conversation to share your truths/concerns about the changes you're experiencing with the friendship.
Like I said in part 1, you've experienced a bunch of changes as a college student. Whether or not you've physically moved, you are exposed to many new things. I get this because I've been there. My husband and I have been married for 16 years, and I went back to school years ago as a non-traditional student. We experienced several relationship adjustments when I was in college because my experiences and even the makeup of my days radically changed. His life stayed the same. He wasn't exposed daily to the flooding of mental stimulation that is inherent on a college campus. My husband did end up going back to college later on, so the dynamic shifted again.
Even if there are no actual changes, but you are the change, this conversation is an important one. Find out the other person's availability and when they will have the time to devote to the conversation. Decide the same for yourself. This talk is also best in person or on the phone, not on text, e-mail, or Facebook. 
You can start by saying, "I need to say some things that feel risky/scary for me. They may be uncomfortable to hear and they are also uncomfortable to say." Keep your feelings in "I" language: "I am struggling with..." or "I am noticing..." 
Try to speak about what's going on for you... within you... rather than blaming the other person or telling them how they "make you feel." I'm a pretty firm believer that others can't put feelings inside of us that don't already reside within us. That said, if a friend is continually triggering you, you do need to examine what that's about for you... and if your response makes you uncomfortable enough to question the viability of the friendship. 
Of course, you want to ask your friend if they've noticed changes in your relationship and how that's affected them. You may learn that your friend feels threatened about you creating a new life for yourself. Maybe they think you won't need them anymore. Your friend may feel worried about moving forward in his/her own life. Rather than looking at you for inspiration based on the changes you've made, your friend is unintentionally saying things that are not supportive. Like I said, you're going to learn quite a bit from opening up this discussion (and bravo, bravo, bravo to you for taking the step!).

Important sidebar: If the person refuses to talk with you, tells you they aren't capable of doing so, or changes the subject, this is critical information. When communication breaks down, the friendship, as a whole, will typically follow suit. For me, I believe so steadfastly in open communication that I know I can't have a healthy, trusting friendship with someone who is absolutely unwilling to "do conflict" or have tough conversations when they are necessary. That characteristic would render us as incompatible friends.

-Untie, rather than cut, if possible.
A dear friend shared this quote recently. I tried to find the original author, to no avail. In truth, I'm a cutter. If something feels badly to me, I can be very black and white. I am not good with riding out discomfort, although when I have, I realize that the shades of gray are rich with possibilities I would have otherwise missed.

You are in a significantly different phase of life. Your friend is also experiencing a different phase of life. Each of you is no longer connected in a way that was familiar. Each of you are growing... at your own rates... in your own time. Maybe you need some simple space to be who you are, to adjust to all of the excitement and possibilities that are before you... alone (or, rather, with the new people who are with you).

I have read many stories of people going through scares on airplanes and have been seated next to complete strangers who held their hand, supported them, and acted lovingly toward them in that moment. Then they never saw the person again. People are in our lives for various reasons at different times. Some relationships come to a natural conclusion. Others are meant to go on indefinitely. A break, or an "untying," can give you the space to figure it out. 
Another sidebar: I believe that breaks are negotiated, rather than abruptly or covertly applied. If a friend has held meaning in your life, they deserve a little closure, even if the closure is temporary. It might feel painful to say, "I think we should take our own time for a while," but knowing is the full battle. We can deal with what we know, but wondering why someone is suddenly unresponsive or behaving differently is far more painful.
-Continue or end with love.
I know this sounds really cheesy, but I firmly believe it. If your friendship can withstand some boundary shifting and morph into a bigger, better bond, then acknowledge the courage that you both showed by talking things out and gaining a better understanding of each other. At the very least, you can say, "Thank you for your openness and willingness to talk this through with me. I appreciate you." I also recommend taking a "temperature check" from time to time to ensure that both of you are still feeling good about the way your friendship is progressing. This way, if things need a tweak, you can revisit the original conversation seamlessly without it being another big "We need to talk" event. 
Certainly, if you decide that you need to cut ties completely (or if your break ends up being lengthy... as in for good), there is no getting around that this is a hard move. Once again, open communication is key, particularly if contact persists. Ending friendships in meanness and anger doesn't honor the history that was. You don't want to have a situation where you can't see each other in passing without dagger stares. It is more humane to say, "I think we need to reconsider remaining in each other's lives for now. I wish you all good things" and ending on as much of a positive tone as possible. 
As I said in Part 1, I wanted to write this piece to reflect on some changes in my own relationships. I'm thankful that I had the opportunity here to do so and very appreciative that you've shared this with me. I'm always so thankful for your comments! 
I'll be back next week with more student-professor communication goodness!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When Relationships Change, How Do You Know When to Let Go? Part 1

(I'm going to divert from my student-prof communication message this week and delve into my interpersonal comm background. Never fear, my regular message will return. This particular topic is close to me right now and I was thinking about college students who are progressing with new situations, perspectives... and how that's affecting "old" relationships. Read on!)
When my students are no longer my students, I will typically accept friend requests on Facebook. I've only been on FB about six months and it's far more business than personal... (though I did just lament about needing my first pair of reading glasses, so that felt a little expose-y).

A wonderful former student of mine, Scott Hamlyn, recently posted this quote on his wall (He gave me permission to share): 

"It happens to everyone as they grow up. You find out who you are and what you want, and then you realize that people you've known forever don't see things the way you do. So you keep the wonderful memories, but find yourself moving on."

Now I know Scott just moved from Washington to Hawaii to pursue a degree at the university there (yes, every single one of us in our CMST 220 class wanted to join him!). I am sure Scott left behind family and friends, and his status update tells me that he might be undergoing some relational changes. Based on some related changes in my own life--not going to college, but some relationship alterations--Scott's words resonated with me at just the right time.

(Don't you love when that happens?)

I thought about the many, many college students I've met over the years who have, themselves, started anew in a fresh location. I've met countless other students aching because they were "left behind" while a friend or significant other went on to a university in a different city.
Figuring out where old relationships fit into a shiny new life is extremely challenging, emotionally distressing, and can be downright painful. Maybe you don't have a new life, but you suddenly have a fresh perspective, a renewed knowledge of yourself. Maybe you're realizing that an old friend is immobile, unchanging, or not-as-supportive of the newer you.

I have had to face this very situation recently. At 42 and an only child, my friendships have always been the touchstone of my existence. I hook into friendships loyally, deeply, thoroughly. I foster my relationships with an open heart and open communication. I try to be a friend who is steadfastly supportive, and one who owns my wrongdoings when necessary.

For these reasons, I am proud to be someone who can sustain friendships for many years. 
For these reasons, I'm also a person who doesn't always see the ready signs when it is time to let a friendship go.

With some recent eye-opening relational changes in my own life, here are some realities I can relate to you, a college student, who may be wondering, "Has this relationship reached its shelf life?", now that you are in a different space:

1.  Listen to your body when you communicate (or anticipate communication) with your friend.
Is your stomach knotted up? Do you feel generally uplifted when you are in conversation with this person? Do you find yourself anxious over whether this person will or won't call or text you? Do you look forward to speaking with this person? Most importantly, are your physical signs holding you back from experiencing what's in the moment? For instance, are you skipping that party or study session--or lacking the ability to "be present" with new friends--because you're feeling nauseous about your contact (or lack thereof) with your at-home friend? If so, your body is speaking to you. Listen to it.
2.  Watch for signs of jealousy or raining on your parade
There is never, ever, ever any guarantee that friends or lovers will grow together at the same rate, and in the same time. However, each person will hopefully support each other in successes, rather than feel threatened by them. If you share that you aced an exam, made a new friend, became an officer of a campus club, then your old friend will hopefully celebrate and applaud that right along with you. If not, this could be a red flag that your friend is unable to grow with you.

3.  Is the other person there to support your anxious, frightened, stressed moments?
In your "former life", you may have had a consistent support system and a relatively stable existence. Now, you have plunged yourself in a totally unfamiliar situation, whether it's another city/state or just that you are going to a different school with all new people. You may feel triggered in ways that you haven't experienced before. You may react differently to your feelings than you have before, which is surprising and possibly unsettling to others in your life.  
This will put your friendships to a test: Will your friend be supportive of you? Change the subject when you try to bring up your fears? Criticize you for feeling the way you do? Will the person become triggered, themselves, and then you end up having to help them? 
If your relationship is solid, it should be able to withstand some situational turmoil that you are going through... and some funky moods you're experiencing. 
However, if you have to constantly be okay in order for the friendship to remain, then this is a problem.

There are other signs that you may have outgrown a friendship, of course, but this is a start. 
Now you're probably wondering:  What if thinking about these things signals that there should be an end? How do I know? What do I do?  
My answer? 
(For now).
Just observe and listen... to your heart, to your body, to your mind as you continue your new communication interactions, and your former ones. 
Taking inventory of relationships is not a quick and easy process, but it is an introspective one. Part 2 of this discussion will come next week.
In the meantime, I'll mention that my Interpersonal Communication students do a journal assignment based on social exchange theory. Essentially, they complete a "cost-benefit" analysis of three friendships. While the complexities of friendships can't easily be broken down into a simple "here's what I'm getting vs giving/here's what I'm not getting vs giving" list, you may be able to see some patterns emerging or areas that are overdue for change. In your week of reflection about your friendships, give this strategy a try... take some notes. 
I look forward to continuing the discussion, and, as always, I'd love to hear your thoughts! 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Let's Chat About... Your Must-Do Move After Mid-Terms

(Wonderful readers, as fall pushes forward, so does the college term. Here in Seattle, students only started classes toward the end of September, but many of you are in mid-terms already. Whether you're still transitioning into college or actively experiencing your first major exams, my advice this week is going to seem like a no-brainer. Take my words to heart: I'm making this recommendation because too few students actually do it and the impact for not taking this tip is huge! Read on and I hope you will comment at the end). 

"But I needed a 3.5 in this class!"

"Is that really that my final grade?"

"Is there anything I can do about this?"

If I only had a quarter for every time I hear some variation of this statement at the end of a term! The subtext is pretty transparent:

"Oh, crap! I didn't get the grade that I needed/wanted and now I am in deep doo-doo." 

I am continually amazed by how many students allow themselves to be blindsided by grades at the end of a term. Now that it's mid-term time, do not let the blindside happen to you! Right now, you have plenty of time to either:

a) Keep working at the awesome grades you've already earned; or,
b) Nudge a grade slightly higher to reach a certain goal; or,
b) Try to save yourself from a poor grade or failure.

So what's the communication lesson? (Yes, we're back to it!)

It's time to make an appointment with your prof and find out where your grades stand!

Here's what you do:

First, get your mid-term grade back, if you have a mid-term. If you don't have a mid-term, then you can move right ahead...

Next, go to the syllabus and look at the points possible to date. Calculate your grade, either on paper, or go to the grade book in your course management system.

Take a breath... Are you celebrating? Are you freaking out?

Remember:  If your grade is a heart-stopper in a bad way, there are still things you can do, but you must act now (more on that in a second).

The bottom line is that you have to know where you stand at this moment--while there is still time to make a plan of attack.

Now, it's time to to talk to your prof... regardless of where your grade stands unless you are 100% certain that you are going to be able to maintain the grade you are desiring without any additional assistance or guidance. Not 100% certain? Keep reading...

E-mail or go up to your prof. Say, "I would like to make an appointment with you to discuss my grade. When is a good time to do that?" You can certainly also visit your prof during office hours, although in one case, I'm going to advise against waiting for that.

Now, you're sitting in your prof's office and one of three conversations is likely going to go down:

Talk #1--"My grade is fantastic! How do I keep it?" 

You are probably doing just about everything right at this point--studying hard, turning in your work for early review, communicating with your prof... So, before you have this conversation, look ahead at what's due. Do you see a particular assignment, major paper, etc. that could threaten your grade? Time to discuss it!

"Professor, I checked my grade and things are looking good for me so far. I'm happy with my grade and intend to keep it. Do you have any particular advice so I can meet that goal?"


"I'm a little concerned that my grade might go down because of the term paper/final exam/assignment #3, etc. I'd like to do what I can to make sure that doesn't happen. What do you recommend? When should I check back with you to ensure that I'm on track?"

Talk #2:  "My grade is not what I was expecting. What the heck's going on?" 

Before you enter into this conversation, prep your documentation: You should have your assignments in hand, particularly any down-graded work (obviously, it's far better to talk about a less-than grade at the time that you receive the less-than grade, but having this discussion at mid-term is far better than at the end of the term).

Say, "I calculated my grade and it is lower than I was expecting. Can you double-check to see if my calculations are correct?"

A variation of this conversation may be: "I am currently slightly below a 'B', which is what I'm trying to get in this class. I'd like to discuss how my work needs to improve to increase my grade."

You can also say:

-"Am I missing any assignments?" (This definitely happens and the onus is always on you to follow up! The prof is not going to chase you down wondering why you didn't turn in work. Also, if you are uploading or attaching to e-mail, technology can fail! The onus is still on you to make sure your work is in!).

-"Can you be more specific on why I received a lower grade on assignment 3? I should have asked you about it at the time you returned it, but I didn't and I'm sorry about that."

-"I'm hoping to still earn a ___ in this class. Do you believe that grade is possible? What do I need to do to make this happen? Can I have you look over work before I turn it in?"

-"I'd like to follow-up to see where things stand in a few weeks. Is there a particular assignment that should be graded first before I meet with you again?"

Talk #3:  "My grade stinks. Can I save myself?"

Before this conversation starts, be realistic with yourself. Your chances of acing the term may well have passed. A "C" might be your celebration (like I talked about in this post). Depending on how much work is left, an "I" (like I discussed in this post) might be another possibility. Or, you may make the decision, with your professor, to drop the class entirely. Regardless, if you don't meet with your prof, you won't know what your options are.

The success of this conversation is going to lie in what you are willing to do to remedy the situation. Your words have to indicate that you intend to be proactive between now and the end of the term.

Start by asking your prof:  "Can I set an appointment with you to go over my grade? I think I might be failing the class or barely passing and I want to discuss my options."  I wouldn't leave this particular meeting to office hours. Be direct about the nature of the meeting.

Two things you need to do to prepare:

-Have a list of your existing grades in hand so your prof can look at them with you. You will both need to analyze what assignments are left, and what you would need to earn in order to pass;

-Look at the schedule of upcoming work and make sure that you will be able to bring yourself up to speed, especially if you were behind on work.

Now, to have the discussion:
If you were completely confused in the course or your work just wasn't up to par, now's the time to get serious about getting help: "Professor, I've been struggling in this class and my grade shows it. I need extra help, if I can still salvage this class and pass it."

If you slacked off and have decided to get serious, the reasons why don't matter, so don't make excuses. Instead, state intentions: "Professor, I haven't done my best to this point, but I'm determined to finish this course and hopefully pass it (Make sure you are clear that you realize your time may have passed for a high grade). I've reviewed the schedule and I've made notes about what is due and when. I would like to see if I can check in with you to stay on track as I'm meeting my deadlines." 

You can also say:
-"Will you accept any work even though it is already late?" (Mention the late policy that exists in the syllabus. No promises here, of course, but you can ask). 

-"Do you believe I can still pass this course? What kind of grades do I need to get on the rest of the work?" (Disclaimer: Your prof may not be able to answer this for you right now--you may need to check in again after a few more assignments are turned in).

 -"Do you think it is in my best interest to drop this course?" (Only take this option if you and your prof determine that there is no possible way to recover! Read this previous post about exit strategies and why they are usually a bad idea).

As important as it is for you to be proactive, it is even more critical that you are accountable. Remember, the prof doesn't have to give you any latitude whatsoever if you've just decided to care about work that you hadn't given a second thought to previously.

If you get help, an opportunity for a do-over, or a willingness for early review, do not miss one deadline and continue to follow up!

All that said, it is your prof's job to help you figure out your standing. Believe me, he/she will be so much happier to analyze the situation with you now, rather than pick up the grade pieces when the term is ending and nothing more can be done.

So, are you ready? Get through your mid-term, and make that appointment. I'd love to see a slew of comments at the end of this post saying "I did it!" (Meaning, you checked on your grades and discussed anything that you needed to with your prof. I'd even be happy if you just make the appointment!).

You're still reading? Don't you have some office hours or an e-mail address to look up? Hmm? Hmm???

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Five No-Apology/Use-Your-Power Communication Tips for the Non-Traditional Student

I was one and maybe you are, too:

A student who is 30, 40, 50, and even 60 and beyond!

According to "Old School:  Colleges Most Important Trend is the Rise of the Adult Student" in The Atlantic, students 30+ years--the parent warriors, laid-off industry experts, career-changers, skill-builders, lifelong learners, and every adult in between--are flocking to campuses in record numbers (not surprising, given the economy, right?).

Like many non-trad students, I did not intend to be "older" in college. But my parents, who were not college educated, did not make provisions for my education and after losing a parent early (like I wrote about in this post), I didn't seek out the resources to continue at that time. My life took a different vocational path for many years, until I decided that I wanted to teach. Then, academic credentials became absolutely necessary. When I went back to school,

I was married (no children);

I worked four part-time jobs;

I took as many credits as I could tolerate in a semester (like 20+).

I won't say that those years were easy, but they are some of my proudest years.

I remember what it was like...
...to attend class after working many hours,
...to try to focus on learning when finances were on my mind,
...to pass my husband in the morning for a few moments and then not reconnect for what seemed like days if I had a lot of homework,
...to feel a little apprehensive when I spoke up in class because I was the oldest (yes, even I felt that way!),
...to rush out of class because I had work waiting for me at home,
...to wonder if it was all worth it and if I'd end up with the career I wanted.
(I was already in a well-paying vocation, but it wasn't my whole heart like college teaching).

Because I relate so intimately to non-traditional students, I thought about what communication lessons relate specifically to our incredible, dedicated population. Here's where I landed:

Never, ever, ever, ever be afraid to talk to the prof about struggles you are having!
Yes, I was reticent at times to speak in class around my younger counterparts, but outside of class? I was very outspoken, going to my profs whenever I was confused or when I felt frustrated about an exam or class policy (Truth be told, I was probably a bit of a pain in the ass, but willing to own that title). As a prof, I know that many non-traditional students are not like I was. A bunch of non-trads come to me for help, feeling embarrassed about their confusion. Or, they say, "I'm sorry. I've been out of school for a really long time."

Know that you never have to apologize for your gap in education. It does not matter. In your years away from school, you had important professional experience that is its own type of college! You deserve to emerge confidently from confusion and get the same help as a student who just got out of high school (and is likely just as perplexed as you are!).

So, when you go to your prof, hold your head up and say, "I'm so excited to be back at school after all these years and you know what? I want to make sure I have a solid handle on what I'm doing. I need your help!"

Also, always ask "Will you review work early for me? What deadline should I set for myself in order to make that happen?" and "Will you take another look if I'm still unsure?"

I know based on my degree in post-secondary ed and in my own personal experiences that adults need to a) regularly know how their doing; and b) feel validated that what they are doing is correct--or how what they're doing needs to be corrected. Get your answers and be proud of your willingness to ask questions!

Share your wisdom and experience in class!
Some non-trad students worry about talking too much in class, so they say little. Other non-trad students ask if it's okay to talk in class (It's true!). As a prof, I'm alone on a ledge sometimes, particularly when I ask a question and... silence... dead silence. Your words are appreciated by faculty and, whether traditional students realize it or not, they have a lot to learn from your articulateness, your background, and your ideas. Speak up and give lots of life/work examples. You never know when your words may serve as a change agent for another student in class. A former non-trad student who was already an EMT (pursuing a nursing degree) gave career advice to a 20-something student who wanted to know the in's and out's of being an EMT. I have seen numerous trad-non-trad relationships start in class... and linger as a mentorship or friendship far beyond the term.

If you are a talker, engage the class community.
I have had chatty non-trad students come to me privately and say, "I don't want to take over the class, so if I'm talking too much, please let me know." Just for the record, I've never told a non-trad student that they're talking too much--what they're saying is typically too rich and priceless to mute! In fact, when a non-trad student shares their thoughts and asks an open-ended question like, "What do the rest of you think?", traditional students sometimes feel less intimidated responding to a fellow student.

It's okay to challenge what you don't feel is right.
Some non-traditional students are so respectful of a prof's position/title that they don't think they should challenge anything. I think many of my colleagues would agree that we're in the wrong profession if we can't handle a little constructive criticism over content or policies. So, if you are uncomfortable about a grade you received, are concerned about other students in class (yes, I have had non-trad students bothered by other students texting, trolling FB, etc. during class), or vastly disagree with the material, use your "I" language and discuss it with your prof. No need to apologize or qualify your thoughts.

Think about it this way: I'm trying to teach students the words to self-advocate with me so they can transition those skills into the workforce. You likely have that experience already, so in the same way you'd approach your boss about a problem, stand strong and state your case.

Carry your own load; let other students carry theirs.
I have seen far too many non-trad students pick up slack on a group project or assist a struggling student with emotional or academic needs... sometimes far beyond what's reasonable. Even when non-trad students are staunch non-enablers of their own kids, they find a soft spot for another young person and jump right in to help (which is amazing and admirable, and I get it because even as a prof, I have to remind myself that students must control their journey).

Remember, your work ethic and maturity has developed; the work ethic and maturity of certain traditional students is developing. If you find yourself shouldering others' academic or personal problems, the greatest gift you can give them, in addition to your kind ear, is a pathway to the resources that can help them i.e., the professor, counseling services, educational advising and planning.

With respect to group work, you have a right to expect a certain standard and to achieve a particular grade... without doing all the work yourself (which your  groupmates may enjoy, but still...). If the situation feels unbalanced or concerning, go tell the prof, "I have concerns about the workflow in my group and I need to resist taking on the project myself." It's the professor's job to manage these types of issues.

So, my non-traditional comrades, I salute every single one of you. You are a model to your friends, families, and traditional students in ways that you probably don't realize.

You've honed your experienced, powerful voice.

Now it to propel your education.

I'd love to hear from the nontraditional students out there! How is your term going? Colleagues, what advice would you add for non-traditional students transitioning back to school?