A few days ago I had the great fortune of working with a fabulous group of 8 to 11 year olds in one of my Lenses of Leadership workshops. As is often the case, many of the students showed up with a look of apprehension, wondering what exactly their parents had signed them up for. I began as I always do by encouraging the students to choose a new lens with regard to the word leadership; a lens that would empower them to embrace their inner leaders.
As the workshop progressed, there were occasional light bulb moments on the students’ faces as we continued to add depth to our conversation. As I scanned the room to assess for understanding, I noticed Jeremy (not his real name), who was sitting toward the back of the room, with his proverbial wall up and obviously unwilling to mentally accept what I was teaching. Trying to be open to his apparent look of anger and frustration, I continued on, hoping that his light bulb moment was just around the corner.
As we neared the end of our time together, I knew I had one final chance to reach Jeremy. It was time to introduce the most powerful tool in my curriculum; the Head, Heart, Feet model. Normally I would ask the students to choose their least favorite subjects in school and use them as their emotional triggers, or circumstances. Then I would walk them through the process of choosing new lenses, which would in turn influence their emotions and actions. Today I chose something different. I was determined to break through Jeremy’s wall, so I decided to ask the students the following question.
“What makes you angry?”
As they wrote down their responses, I couldn’t help but notice Jeremy writing feverishly on his paper. Clearly, he was writing more than one of his emotional triggers. Here is the conversation that ensued.
“Okay, who would like to share their trigger? Jeremy, let’s start with you.”
“I have a few of them, but the one that angers me the most is when kids make fun of the way I look.” He then explained to the class specific examples of the teasing.
“I can understand your frustration. I too was teased when I was your age. However, I want to share something with you—all of you—that just might change your lives. It’s not the people teasing you who are making you angry.” I paused at this point to let this thought resonate. Jeremy was clearly frustrated.
“How can you say that?”
“Look at your Head, Heart, Feet model (see diagram below). Notice the clouds labeled “My Circumstances”. Between the clouds and your thoughts is a space. I like to call this space “freedom.” You see, people are going to say mean things to other people. These are circumstances. True power, however, is recognizing that we will always have the freedom to think about our circumstances in any way we choose. So, the next time someone teases you, I want you to pause for a minute and think about how you are going to respond. Are you going to give your power to this person by getting angry, or are you going to keep your power by recognizing that his words do not define you? Someone could walk into this room right now and tell me that I am the absolute worse teacher he’s ever met. While it would certainly be natural for me to feel upset, I could also choose to keep my power by focusing on all of the people who believe in me. You are a beautiful person Jeremy and NO ONE has the power to tell you otherwise.”
His wall was broken. Jeremy’s anger was replaced with a look of confidence and hope. It was if I had given him a gift and he had finally opened it.
Victor Frankl’s quote is one of my absolute favorites. As someone who used this emotional freedom to persevere through the atrocities of The Holocaust, he certainly provides hope that it is possible, regardless of your circumstances.
I invite you to identify your emotional triggers and consider the fact that you really do have the freedom to respond in any way you choose.