‘You can’t say that!’
Sh*t that isn’t true
“On the outside looking in I would imagine it looked like I had a wonderful life, and a lot of people thought that I did. On the inside I felt perpetually anxious and insecure, and very, very deeply unhappy and unsettled.”
I had just started my interview with John Iadipaolo, founder of NewNow Empowerment — a consulting firm that offers one-on-one coaching and personal development workshops. A good friend had referred me to John — who was former high school teacher who had moved into the private sector. John was providing me with background on how he had found his way into the personal coaching and development field.
“Feeling like that led me to spend many, many years trying to fit in, trying to impress other people, getting into a lot of habits — things that I thought would make me loved, so that I could love myself…and nothing really worked. Eventually I could no longer deny just how unhappy I was,” John explained.
John decided he needed to make a change.
“I began an eight year self development journey,” he continued. “It started with physical yoga and led into meditation and mind-body awareness. Esoteric practices.”
As he explored his own personal development, John continued to work as a high school teacher. He found that the work he was doing for himself was beginning to impact the way he interacted with his students.
“I was teaching the kind of students that, when I was in school, I just never ran into,” explained John. “I was very A-type, performance-driven, focused on grades and achievement. But as a teacher I was working predominantly with people that just did have those same goals, perspectives or expectations of themselves. I learned very quickly that if I was going to be effective I had to really engage students on a real, honest, human level. I had to stop seeing myself as a teacher and the teenagers as students. I had to see us all as people. I had to see us all as learners. Where we were all there to learn from each other and teach other things in a respectful, trusting environment.”
“So you tried to break down some of the barriers that are often intentionally created between students and teachers?” I asked. “Instead of cultivating an image of yourself as an ‘other’ — someone with more wisdom, experience, and knowledge than the students — you aimed to highlight the things that connected you?”
“Exactly,” said John. “I did some of my best work when I walked the walk of being open and honest and transparent with my students from day one.”
“What did that look like?” I asked him.
“It meant sharing being vulnerable with them,” he responded. “Sharing frustrations or challenges I’ve had in my life. Sharing times where I had difficulties with family members and cried as a result. I taught them openly and honestly about substance abuse and how I felt like in my own personal life I eventually turned to things like alcohol and marijuana because I had lost the ability to have an intrinsic sense of self-worth.”
John paused for a moment, then continued slowly, as if he was considering exactly how to explain his strategy.
“I showed them who I was and I encouraged them to be who they really were.”
“And what I found was that by holding the space and consistently reinforcing the necessity of having a respectful, open classroom environment where everyone and everyone’s ideas were to be shared, respected, valued and included, the students started to exhibit a lot more emotional intelligence and an intrinsic sense of self-worth. A sense of worth for both themselves and the people around them.”
“So you found far more success when you focused on what kind of interpersonal culture was created in a classroom, rather than what was actually being taught?” I asked. “I can see how that’s valuable, but the problem I found in the education system, and really in organizations of all types, is that establishing a culture of openness always takes a backseat to establishing the rules.”
“For sure,” John responded. “But we can’t be afraid of taking the risk of trying to create authentic human connections. How much can we really learn, how much can we really open up and try to grow if we don’t feel safe and respected and encouraged just to be ourselves, right?”
“I think perhaps people are afraid of losing face or being attacked for being open about ‘who they are’, especially if they see ‘who they are’ as being flawed,” I suggested. “And people can’t stand being told ‘just be yourself’ when they believe that who they are is so far from perfect.”
John thought for a moment.
“Maybe the best way of looking at it is this,” he offered. “We’re not asking people to say, ‘I’m me and the way I am is perfect.’ We’re asking them to accept ‘I’m me and the way I am is the perfect place to start from.”
“I love that!” I exclaimed. “I’m not perfect, but the way I am is the perfect place to start from.”
By this point, John and I had been chatting for 45 minutes, and hadn’t gotten to the main purpose of the interview: finding out what he felt was some “sh*t that isn’t true”.
“So let me ask you,” I said. “What’s a saying that you, in the place you are now, drawing on the experiences you’ve had, would qualify as some ‘sh*t that isn’t true’”?
John laughed. “Well, I’m not sure that exact expression I’d pick, but it would be something around the fact that…well, to me there’s a very fine line between being considerate and respectful of others versus being in a society where we are not allowing ourselves to be individuals and to express different ideas.”
John continued. “One class in particular I taught — a grade 11 applied English class — for the first month of class they were throwing water bottles at each other, they were calling each other brutal names, doing all kinds of wild things, you know? But by the end of the semester, they were moderating their own debates once or twice a week on conversation topics they chose, taking turns speaking, listening to each other, politely listening and counter-arguing points they didn’t agree with.”
“What changed?” I asked.
“I kept telling them, time and time again, that each one of them is entitled to their opinions and feelings,” John explained. “But I wanted them to look at expressing their opinions and feelings in a certain way.”
And at this point, John launched into a way of looking at the idea of sharing ideas and opinions in a way I’ll always remember.
“Your feelings are kind of like emotionally using the washroom, right?” He said. “Everyone needs to use the washroom at least a couple of times a day. And, if for whatever reason I need to use the washroom and I can’t, I’ll become increasingly more and more uncomfortable, I’ll end up obsessing about it, and if I wait too long I’ll have a mess right there in my pants. So I shouldn’t hold things in.”
“Oh wow,” I laughed. “I’ve never thought of it that way, but I suppose you’re right.”
John continued, “But the other half of that is that we have washrooms in this polite civilized society of ours for a reason, right? So, if I have to use the washroom and I’m talking with you, I don’t just flap down my pants and go right here where I’m standing. I go off to the washroom where it’s appropriate. I do it in a way that is more respectful of myself and others.”
“I used that analogy to get them to think differently about how they shared opinions and heard opinions,” John explained. “When we started it was always, ‘you can’t say that!’ Of course that is seen as an attack, and the traditional response is defense. But I challenged them to see what would happen if they tried, ‘Hey, I heard what you said. I have a problem with what you said. It makes me feel this way.’ By admitting it upsets you, you’re showing vulnerability, but you’re making that clear distinction between the person and the opinion they shared and you’re also inviting them to open up and be vulnerable themselves because you’ve shared your vulnerability.”
“So to me it’s sounds like the ‘sh*t that isn’t true’ to you is the phrase, ‘you can’t say that!’ I pointed out.”
“Yes!” John exclaimed. “That’s very much it. Because what I found with my students is that most of their lives they’d been in an environment where there’s a lot of people telling them what they can and cannot do. But a lot of my students’ behaviors that would be considered defiant or oppositional were actually their emotions — their grief, their fear, or their anger — coming out in indirect ways because they’ve been taught for years: ‘Don’t talk like that. Don’t give me that look. Don’t colour outside the lines, don’t be disruptive or hurtful. In short, they were told over and over again, ‘you can’t say that’.
John continued, “So, I told them — ‘hey, everyone has bad days, everyone gets upset. If you’re ever feeling really strongly, don’t suppress those emotions, but express them in a way that respects you and others. Otherwise you’re just shitting all over the floor’.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s a powerful image, I can see how people wouldn’t want to see themselves as doing that.”
“Honestly Drew, the goal was to help people recognize the importance of being able to work through conversation topics which are emotionally charged or mentally challenging,” said John. “To find the language and the courage and the space to do that. The people who can do that are going be some of our greatest leaders in the coming years. We have a lot of emotional and opinion gaps that are going to have to be crossed if we’re going to come together as humanity and make real meaningful change on things like climate control, war, poverty, how we use technology, the educational system. People are not just going to hold hands and sing Kumbaya from day one, but at least some people have to be willing to say, ‘I don’t agree with what you’re saying and it upsets me, but I still respect you as a human being and we need to listen to each other.’”
I have to be honest, when I started doing interviews for this blog, I never thought I’d be writing the phrase “shitting all over the floor”. However, John’s point is interesting: we’ve created deeply engrained cultural expectations that say it’s completely unacceptable to crap on the floor. Most other animals haven’t. What if we start to marginalize attacking people instead of ideas, refusing to listen to opposing viewpoints, and viewing people who disagree with us as our enemies in the same way? What if we treated those who attack instead of listening as if they’ve gone to the bathroom on the floor? Perhaps we can all provide a psychic newspaper across the nose, and attack the challenges facing us all in far more constructive way.
About John Iadipaolo
John Iadipaolo is the founder of NewNow Empowerment. He has spent 16 years working as a teacher and mentor with individuals around the world to help them discover personal truth and empowerment.
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