15 June 2011

Radio Silence and Psychological Allergies

Currently dealing with some unbloggable challenges (can't anonymize them sufficiently midstream, unfortunately).

Am hoping to be past the worst of them in another month or so. Had no idea I hadn't posted in so long.

The enforced silence is frustrating, because the things I'm dealing with fall squarely within the context of this blog. I guess I'm getting another lab practical - or, more aptly, going for my black belt.

When it's over and I can post about it, I will. Whatever the outcome.


Meanwhile, a different kind of story about the effect of abuse on groups:

A while back, I realized that all work and no play make Stormchild an extremely dull crone, and I decided that a bit of volunteer work would do very well as "play". Found a nonprofit that could use me at odd times, and they were tickled pink to have me as a resource.

Didn't work as advertised. Found myself being not only challenged, but challenged in very hostile and aggressive ways, whenever I suggested anything whatsoever. This was a fascinatingly uniform response - all levels of the outfit exhibited it. It was also a fascinating double-bind, in that these people would first approach me for suggestions or assistance, which is what they'd brought me in to do... then nitpick and invalidate whatever I said, sometimes not even waiting till I'd finished saying it.

Fortunately I wasn't spending much time at this, but unfortunately that meant it took a few weekends for me to accumulate enough experience to see the pattern. After about twenty hours total, I'd sampled this behavior from most of the staff and was drafting my resignation (wondering idly who would blue-pencil it or suggest an alternate layout) when one of the most senior staff members glided up to my desk and Asked My Advice On Something.

I decided it was time to put my resignation into effect, so I looked him in the eye and said: "I'm sorry, Phil, nothing personal, but it's become obvious to me that there's no advice I can give you - or anyone here - on this or any subject - that is going to be taken at all, let alone taken in the spirit in which it is offered. In the three months I've been coming in, every suggestion I've made has been shot down in flames, without even the pretense of serious consideration. I'm wasting my time and yours - not just you individually, your whole outfit. You need a [my pet interest] advisor whose advice you want to take, and it's high time I let you get back to searching for one. It's been interesting, but I'm not doing you guys any good."

He blinked, stared, and slowly sat down. "Say again?"

I said again, with embellishments.

"We've been doing that to you? Seriously?"

I told him it would be impossible for them to have done it any more seriously, believe me.

Long pause. Looking over my shoulder into the middle distance. Throat clearing.

"Well, I hadn't realized we were coming across like that, but now that you say it, I should have. And I think we should have come clean about this a while ago.

We were desperate for someone who could give us advice on [my pet interest] because none of us has ever done [my pet interest]. Not one of us, ever. It's a huge hole, smack in the middle of our operation. We've realized that without a good understanding of [my pet interest] we're up the creek in some major ways.

Thing is, it's been killing us to admit it, and obviously, we've been taking it out on you."

Yeah, I said, you have, but I certainly wouldn't have guessed that was the cause. And this is when The Lesson arrived. Her name was Sheila, and she had been one of the nonprofit's founders, along with Phil and one other senior staffer.

Sheila, it turned out, didn't know squat about [my pet interest] either - but ah, she thought she did. And she talked about [my pet interest] nonstop... in the halls, in the lunchroom, in the restroom, in her office, in their offices, and probably in her sleep. But based on what was quoted to me, it was all smoke and word salad... and since she never stopped talking, nobody ever had a chance to ask her any questions. And since there was no substance to what she said, nobody learned anything from her, either; how could they?

At least, they didn't learn anything from her about [my pet interest]. But oh my, they learned to hate hearing someone talk about [my pet interest]. They learned to hate it so much that after Sheila finally ran out of smoke and mirrors and decamped, they couldn't unlearn it long enough to actually listen to a different person who did know something. Even though they desperately needed to listen and learn, and I desperately wanted to teach and explain.

That's one I'd never seen before.

And no, I didn't take Phil's word for it. I came back, the next weekend I was scheduled to be there, and I asked Dana, and Sal, and Buddy, and Dwayne. One at a time.

Same story, different epithets.

And a really interesting thing happened. As each one of them - including Phil - told me about Sheila, and her neverending barrage of word salad (my term; their terms were far less family friendly) - I could see them relaxing, and for the first time I realized how tense they had been around me. Almost clenched with tension, and I'd never realized it.

Then it struck me that they had all, almost certainly, been afraid of Sheila, and therefore they'd been afraid of me!

Afraid that, if I did in fact know anything about [my pet interest], I'd be contemptuous of them for not knowing about it; and afraid, at the same time, that I didn't really know anything more than Sheila did;

Because they knew nothing, except that she had known nothing; so how were they to judge if I really knew anything?

If your head is spinning at this point, join the club. I had never realized that abuse could take this form, and have this effect. But Sheila was, in fact, abusive; she monopolized their attention, consumed their time, and gave nothing substantive back. The entire organization had become unable to learn about a topic they desperately needed to understand. It was as though they'd become psychologically allergic to it.

The story has a happy middle. I suggested three things: get a second volunteer advisor in who also knows about [my pet interest], let me assist in picking them, and compare our input. And God be thanked, THIS suggestion, they listened to.

Mike, luckily, has been doing [my pet interest] even longer than I have; even more luckily, he's retired; and that makes him available on weekdays. Best of all, they ask him, then they ask me; or they ask me, then they ask him; and they're getting the same, straightforward answers from both of us, independently.

Which they're now listening to. At this point, the nit-picking and invalidation is gone, and I think Mike's found a second career ;-).

And that's even better. Because glad as I am to have helped with all this, I'll be even more glad to get my weekends back.

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