Uncommon Common Sense
By Bill Frayer
For many years, I chaired the Humanities Department at a community college in Maine. It was often a thankless job which required me to locate and hire qualified 30-40 adjunct faculty each semester to teach most of the courses in our department. These were faculty hired on a per-course contract basis with relatively low pay and no benefits.
College faculties are an independent bunch. They often do not take criticism easily. They think they are “smart.” They have advanced degrees in their fields. Nevertheless, some are unbelievably inept at relating to the students on an emotional level.
Many community college students are working parents trying to balance work, family and school. Sometimes, they need a bit of reassurance. Sometimes they need a little flexibility. They are often on the edge emotionally, trying to make everything work. With a bit of understanding and help, they will work their hearts out and succeed.
I had a predictable number of the faculty (a minority) who apparently did not understand this. They viewed their role as simply providing course instruction and maintaining academic standards. They would refuse to show any flexibility and were clearly uncomfortable having to deal with the emotional side of student behavior.
In 1995, Daniel Goleman coined the term “Emotional Intelligence,” which made the case that our ability to deal with people on an emotional level, is at least as important as our IQ. Let’s face it, everything is not about rationality. As we know, people don’t vote, make financial decisions, or decide who to marry based on exclusively rational criteria. Simply being intellectually smart, having a wealth of information, and being able to express oneself clearly is necessary, but not sufficient condition for being a good teacher, manager, plumber or anything else. We must deal with people who rely both on their rational thinking skills and their emotions.
We all know people who believe themselves to be very brilliant and, indeed, may be, but who do not have complementary emotional intelligence skills. Unfortunately, they sometimes appear to others to be arrogant and aloof, and they often are. They operate under the false impression that being well read and intellectually nimble will get them where they want to be.
But when “the rubber hits the road,” so to speak, when they need to deal with real people in the real world, those who have not developed their emotional interaction skills are left isolated and alone. Emotional intelligence requires that we gain skills in watching to see how others are processing what you are saying. It involves being sensitive to non-verbal cues. It involves give and take and being a good listener. Ultimately it involves trying to understand where someone is coming from emotionally and responding in an empathetic and kind way. These types of people realize that being right is sometimes not the most important thing. “Right” may win out in the end, but it’s more important to bring people along so they feel confident and respected along the way.
I remember attending one commencement when a woman came up to me and thanked me for giving her the confidence to stay in school and not drop out. “What did I do?” I asked. “You were kind and listened to me when I was depressed and about ready to give up,” she explained. I don’t remember that exact conversation, but it reminded me that success or failure can often hinge upon an open ear and a kind word. It rarely hinges upon how much we know.