I will deviate from the normal structure of my blogs to discuss the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut last week. It has been the sole topic of discussion over the past couple of days and I suspect will be for days and weeks to come. This event has touched everyone across the world because of the age of the victims, and rightfully so. As such, everyone is grieving and this grieving will not stop magically the moment you step in the office today. How to deal with this grief is getting little attention and in some cases the advice is conflicting. For example, one of my good friends received a letter from his kids’ Principal instructing parents to avoid discussing the issue. Yet another Principal of another school encouraged parents to discuss it. Who is right?
I do not believe that when dealing with trauma and emotions that the issue is what is the right way, as much as it is what are all the ways of dealing with it. The right answer is a multitude of answers, not just one. It is therefore important to understand what all the approaches are so that you can figure out the right one for you, your family, and co-workers.
The right approach is based on three variables: (1) Age, (2) Nature of Relationships, and (3) Personality. I will discuss all three in more detail but before I do, I want to underscore that human beings have the capacity to learn and subsequently grow/change substantively more from tragedies and trauma than from normal day-to-day experiences. This is because trauma creates a very heightened sense of awareness and focus. We tend to cut out the typical noise that comes with most ordinary experiences. So, this tragedy in Newtown has the potential to be a wonderful learning experience. I encourage you as a leader of your home or workplace to take advantage of it.
At work, where the focus for most days of the year is on work and meetings and conference calls, it may be just asking people how they dealt with the news over the weekend as an opportunity to emotionally bond, and hear of ways that you or others may not have considered. The same approach could be taken at home. In this day and age, there is no way that any adult or any child of any age is going to be shielded from this topic. As a parent, the real question is who it is that you want your children to be having the conversation with. Is it with other children, their teachers, or with you.
The three variables:
1. Age: The general rule of thumb is that the older the child, the more detailed and less abstract the conversation need be. For example, if you have a child who is 24 years old, clearly talking about every detail of the events should not be a problem. Conversely, if you have a 5 year old, she may not understand autism or Asperger’s and the conversation might need to be more concrete using terms like “good guy” and “bad things.” If you have children of different ages, then consider having separate conversations with each of them. I reiterate again that there is no right way, just many right ways. You have to figure out which one works for who.
2. Nature of Relationships: If you come have a family environment where you discuss everything openly and encourage dialogue especially with topics where there may be no answer or no right answer, then talking about this issue should be no different. Not talking about it will likely signal a deviation from normal and potentially cause more anxiety than is necessary. Specifically for my friends across town whose Principal told them not to discuss the issue, that advice would have a counterproductive impact. On the other hand, if you are a family that tends to be very guarded and sensitive about these kinds of issues, then discussing it without a tremendous amount of thought to the process and doing enough research to know how to discuss, might be counterproductive too. With my family, specifically my 8- and 6-year-old children–and being from Africa where unfortunately tragedies like this are commonplace–I have discussed all kinds of social issues with my kids for a long time. So we sat down and discussed the Newtown shootings together and each person gave their thoughts. My goal was not to reach a conclusion or closure of any kind, but to facilitate a process where they felt safe discussing a tragedy.
3. Personality: Irrespective of age or the nature of relationship, people are different. It is what makes us a special race of people. Our personality is the framework with which we communicate and exhibit behavior. It is important to know the personalities of your children and co-workers. Introverts for example, will deal with trauma in a very different way than extroverts, and both are right ways. So, as a leader of a home or workplace, knowing personalities (even your own) is critical to deciding how you want to process this and learn from it. There is a lot of information on personality styles on the Internet that is easy to research.
Like many important experiences in life, we can learn from them or let them sit in our memories, where they are of little use, and often have a detrimental impact at the most inopportune times. I invite you to embrace this tragedy in Newtown to create healthier and emotionally richer relationships with those you love and work with. I, quite frankly, can’t think of a better way to honor the victims of the shootings than to give them credit for sparking healthier and richer dialogues, and maybe even positive changes in your life.