Building Good Relationships - a commitment to honesty

This week, we have a guest blog from Sarah Donachy, Head of Sixth Form at ARK Globe Academy, she talks about how to build that crucial rapport with students.

All good relationships – with ourselves, our loved ones and our colleagues – are built on honesty. Bad relationships are built on lies, deception and an unwillingness to see things as they are. Good relationships of all kinds go bad for this reason – maybe we protect ourselves with the lies, but they nonetheless spell the end.

Similarly, with young people a commitment to honesty is important, especially if they are from a challenging context. In practice this means calling them out when they don’t meet expectations – if they are late or don’t do something they agreed to, challenge them and reiterate the importance of being on time next time.

Only offer honest praise – praise is important, but young people can smell the desperation if you over do it.

Be specific – what did they do well and how? What is the consequence of their action and why will it benefit them in the near and middle future?

Don’t patronise young people by telling them they are amazing at every opportunity. They aren’t. They are 16/17 year olds, so they are lazy, selfish and sometimes rude. Occasionally they can be amazing, but if we overuse the term and pretend they are what they aren’t, we undermine the power of praise to stimulate change. They aren’t amazing simply because their lives are hard, they’re amazing if they rise to the challenge of overcoming that hardship.

Reliability is boring but an important practical issue. Working with young people effectively means doing what you say you will. Don’t be late, don’t forget things you promised, don’t over promise. If you absolutely have to cancel something, do it in good time and communicate it well.

Understanding is really important to a good relationship and this takes time, patience and some emotional intelligence. Listening carefully to the things that really get said – can they really ‘not be bothered,’ or were they actually a bit afraid to fail?   Do they really not care or can you dial in to the hurt in their tone signalling that they actually care deeply?

For coaches and those who work pastorally with young people, listening is the single biggest skill. Hearing what is said beyond the words can take practice – don’t be afraid of silence during a conversation on a tough topic and let your young person talk. Usually, the real issue is lying somewhere underneath the bravado or insecurity so give them the time and space to get to it. The skills they learn from doing this – how to face themselves honestly and non-judgementally – will last a lifetime.

Real understanding requires self-awareness too. Most of us enjoyed learning – we were good at it and took satisfaction from exploring ideas, but our students might not enjoy the new found freedom of thought. Are you able to know when you are over identifying with a student who has similar issues to you? Are you a perfectionist who struggles to understand how anyone can ignore their homework for a week? Being aware of your bias is important as you find a way to understand a student – you need to get alongside them and see the world through their eyes, so what about you will hamper that?

If you want to build good relationships, read widely about the human mind. Certainly, some of what you read will be nonsense or will feel strange or unlikely, but every now and then you stumble on a bit of wisdom that helps makes sense of your own mind and sheds light on others too.  I really like the line from the poem ‘Our Deepest Fear’:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Marianne Williamson

Not least because it is from Coach Carter (classic) but also because it is truth expressed simply. Many of our young people struggle with the truth that they alone will be the source of change in their lives – they are afraid of the responsibility and the burden. What if they fail? Reading helps us learn about the mind and reflect deeply on the issues facing us – even if we never mention the material our relationships are the better for it.

Humour is an effective tool – making people laugh at a situation or at themselves is a good way to show them the problem in a non-threatening way, but not everyone is funny and sometimes funny people over do it and it becomes about them.  Don’t feel a pressure to be funny if it’s not you.

What we really want to communicate is a sense of care – of love. It’s not fashionable to use the word love in this context outside of religion, but we want to communicate a care and a respect for the person we work with. We want to rejoice in their success and sit with them in their sadness. We want them to realise that they have immeasurable power waiting within them if they can summon the courage to use it. If that isn’t a kind of love then I’m not sure what is.

Sarah is Head of Sixth Form at one of our partner schools ARK Globe Academy, part of the leading academy chain ARK schools.

To follow Sarah on twitter (highly recommended!), go to @SarahDonachy.