Adapting is something we do every day. But, what if I told you that one word could make adapting easier for everybody in any given situation? Take a listen…

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Episode Transcript

Liz Mantel: Today’s show takes a turn, and it’s not one that you see coming or even know that it is happening until you get there, and it all comes down to one word and it’s a word that people often describe or define incorrectly, but once you get there, it will open your eyes to a whole new angle on the topic we’re gonna talk about today. Before we get to that topic, we’re going to start with a story.

Mandy Manning: I am Mandy Manning, the 2018 National Teacher of the Year

Liz: She won that award for teaching high school English. Seems pretty simple, but it wasn’t to just anybody, it was to newly arriving refugees and immigrants, many of them who didn’t speak any English. Today, Mandy is going to tell us a story about one of her students. His name is Hussein, who is a 20-year-old refugee from Iraq who came to the states in 2012. Normally, someone of that age probably would go to community college and take an adult learning class, but Hussein didn’t do that, he wanted to go to high school, and she welcomed him.

Mandy: He had this innate understanding that if he attended high school, he would number one, learn English a lot faster because it’s six hours straight of language a day, and then second, that he would be able to have more access to culture here in the United States, and he felt that if he spent six hours a day at a high school that he would be able to transition more easily because he would just have so much exposure. The thing about Hussein is that he is extremely outgoing and he was very interested in practicing his English and he loved to make new friends, he was willing to take risks that a lot of other students are not always willing to do.

Liz: Mandy said Hussein’s outgoing personality was surprising.

Mandy: Most kids wouldn’t be able to be so optimistic.

Liz: We told you earlier that he was a refugee from Iraq, but we didn’t tell you why.

Mandy: Prior to coming to the United States, Hussein had kind of a tumultuous life. Well not kind of, it was totally tumultuous. His mom had essentially given him up when he was a baby. He had lived with his Father, but there was a lot of transition in his household a lot.

Liz: Hussein was extremely close to his father; in fact, his father was the only consistent thing in his life. His father was also the equivalent of the police chief in Bagdad and it was a tense time, and as 2001 grew closer, tensions grew higher, the US invaded and overthrew Saddam Hussein.

Mandy: There was so much transition and everything that anyone who worked with the United States Government was immediately deemed as a possible traitor to the Iraqi people.

Liz: And among those who were thought to be the enemy: Hussein’s father.

Mandy: Hussein’s father was murdered by terrorists in Iraq, and Hussein was there when his father was murdered.

Liz: Not only was Hussein there to witness his father’s murder, he was also hit himself, somehow he remained optimistic.

Mandy: He became a barber for the United States army, so he was very young at this point, he’s still only fifteen, sixteen years old and he has started to learn how to cut hair and essentially spends most of his days on the base.

Liz: During his time on the base, he actually reconnected with his mother who happened to be living in the United States. Because of his work with US Army and his mother willing to sponsor him, he was allowed refugee status in the United States.

Mandy: When he arrived, things were pretty stable, and so when he came to my classroom, which was amazing, I was able to find this out quickly because he is so outgoing. Something that I don’t normally do, because I teach brand new newcomers and our focus is always foundational language skills, Hussein having only one year, I knew we had to do something different–so I enrolled him in cosmetology classes.

Liz: Hussein would spend half the day at cosmetology school and then spend the rest with Mandy in her classroom, learning everything over again. For about six months, this worked great, but the underlying issues of abandonment from his mother wouldn’t go away. After six months, he found himself homeless.

Mandy: But because he had created such strong connections with me and my teaching partner, and his fellow students, we were able to help him navigate that, we found places for him to stay until he was eventually able to find a more permanent place to live.

Liz: With his optimistic personality and persistence, he completed that first year, and:

Mandy: He’s now a licensed cosmetologist in Spokane, he cuts my hair.

Liz: Hussein is also a full-fledged part of Mandy’s family. She said that the story is great, its uplifting about overcoming, but there is something behind the story.

Mandy:  There is some universal truth around a child’s ability to be resilient and to grow into a happy, productive adult, and a lot of that has to do with having a caring adult outside of the family who believes in them and their ability to then internalize that belief in themselves, and then see themselves in the future—we call it time-traveling.

Liz: Hussein’s time-traveling moment is a moment that Mandy doesn’t really even remember: a driving lesson.

Mandy: He goes “you and I had talked about that I needed to learn to drive a car” because he was twenty-years-old and he needed to be able to go to appointments and do all these things, and a bus pass just wasn’t cutting it.

Liz: Someone had to teach him how to drive, Mandy said she would and she followed through on that.

Mandy: He was like “you showed up and you brought your son and your mom, and when I came out from the apartment, you were already sitting in the passenger seat and you were like ‘okay get in!’” and he goes “I just couldn’t believe it” and he goes “and that was a turning point for me. This idea that you didn’t even know who I was, but you were committed, and you followed through on this one thing,” he goes “I just knew that I had worth and that I could make it.”

Liz: On today’s episode of Life Well Learned, we’re gonna talk adapting.

Liz: Hi I’m Liz Mantel and on today’s episode of Life Well Learned, we’re diving into adapting, and I say diving in because adapting is a lot deeper than I think we assumed. Two great experts today, one is a psychologist and one is an educator, so not only are we gonna learn mentally and physically what is going on, but also how we can create great environments and really what it means to develop as a young child. Let’s start right off with the basics and what adapting means, it’s time for our first expert.

Tanisha Joshi: Tanisha Joshi, licensed Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Associate Professor at Medaille College. To me, adapting means being able to adjust to a new circumstance or to a new situation to the best of your ability, and to meet the demands of that situation to the best of your ability, that allows you then to integrate with it.

Liz: Notice how Tanisha said “your,” adapting isn’t a one-size-fits-all, it’s very individualized, which might explain why it is hard for some people and easy for others.

Tanisha: It isn’t black or white, this is the reason why adapting is hard. There is a lot of situations that make adapting easier or harder. One of the main things that I think plays a role is the stakes.

Liz: Think of it this way, adapting happens on a spectrum. Coming to the reality to having to adapt from always being late is different than having to adapt to the reality that maybe you’ve suffered a personal trauma. Yes, you’re adapting in both situations, but what goes into that is completely different.

Tanisha: Adapting essentially is one of those terms that if you ask four people in a room what adapting to a situation looks like, they will give you four different answers.

Liz: Okay so we know that adapting is individualized, and we also know that environment plays a key, but which environment? The environment they were raised and taught in? Or the environment that they are currently in?

Tanisha: I absolutely think it’s both, and I think a big part of it is sort of the success of the reinforcement that occurs. For example, coming from India where the concept of time is more fluid, *stopwatch ticking sound effect* as opposed to it being in the US, one of the biggest things I had to quote unquote adapt to, was this idea of showing up to places, probably like five minutes before the time the meeting started, now this is a very simple example and I’m sure that you know, different cultures view it differently but in India when you see a meeting starts at 9 o’clock in the morning, it is much more like 9:15ish we will all get there, then we’ll spend some time chatting, and you know, just culturally making everybody else in the room comfortable and then we’ll get to the order of business by 9:30. When we say the meeting will end about 10, 10:30, we mean 10:30-11:00-ish, you know once the most important person in the room is done talking, but over here I had to show up five minutes before the meeting started, and it didn’t matter whether you were done or not, whether the issue at hand was addressed or not, if the meeting ended at 10:00, it ended at 10:00. So, for me a big part was adapting and recognizing that 9:00 does not mean 9:00-ish, and get your stuff done by 10:00, and it may seem like a really small thing to adapt to, but it was huge because for a bunch of years I ran late, and it gave me a bad rep, so adapting meant understanding how important this is in what was now becoming my host culture, and if I wanted to be successful in that. I could continue showing up late, but then most people wouldn’t invite me anymore. *laughing*

Liz: What Tanisha’s example shows us is that Americans are weird about their timing, but it also shows that she took the values she learned in her environment as a child, and applied them to the current environment that she was facing at the time. Both of them were important, it’s a good time to bring in our next expert. *phone ringing sound effect*

 Mary Beth Scumaci: Mary Beth Scumaci, I’m the Associate Dean for Educational Technology at Medaille College. I am also an Associate Professor of Practice for the Education Department.

Liz: When we talk about learned behaviors and even tools to deal with adapting, home life is important, but a lot of that learning goes on in the classroom.

Mary Beth: Well I think education is a community, when we’re with a child for that six hour school day, that’s the longest consistent adult interaction that a child might have with somebody, so although we’re not replacing a parent, we’re not replacing family members or religious beliefs or any of those types of things, we are influential in helping children in being able to manage their emotions, their skills, their ability to learn, to develop their skills, and how to use those constructively and positively in everyday life.

Liz: So, creating an environment for a child to be able to test boundaries and express themselves and feel comfortable doing it is vital according to Mary Beth, to start developing the right tools. How does that translate into the business world and adulthood?

Tanisha Joshi: It requires patience on both sides

Liz: Back to Tanisha Joshi

Tanisha: And most importantly it requires empathy on both sides. The more welcoming and empathetic an environment is, the more compassion there is. Right so there’s multiple layers of things that go into adapting. Kids are extremely susceptible to loving, caring, empathetic environments. Why is it harder to teach an old dog quote unquote new tricks? Because an old dog has learned things a certain way, they have a certain worldview, certain things have been reinforced. It is a much less flexible value system and belief system—children, not so much.

Liz: What we can learn from this is it shouldn’t just be about the individual trying to adapt. Like in the classroom, if you create an environment where someone feels safe and feels valued, then they’re probably going to adapt easier.

Tanisha: If you wanted to be an effective system, absolutely. If you don’t want it to be an effective system that’s fine, you will have people there, and I think one of the things you’ve learned is there’s enough people that if you lose a valuable person, then there are others who will take that spot, but faulty systems do continue to perpetuate. But going back to the principles of compassion, empathy, and welcoming, where is that when we say “get over it”? It was bad for me so it doesn’t have to be any better for you if we adapt, and if we sort of—and that’s where I sort of get hung on the word “adapt,” it’s not so much a simple adapt, but that takes a process of integration, which is “how has this system impacted me?” and “how have I impacted the system?”, and then you sort of understand that it is a dynamic—it’s not just one affecting the other.

Liz: So, let’s put you in the driver’s seat for this one. *key in ignition dinging alert sound effect, engine starting sound effect* Let’s say you have a meeting you have to make at 9:00 a.m., but you just can’t get there on time. *car horn beeping sound effect* It’s not because you’re lazy, it’s because you have two kids you have to drop off at school at 8:30, *kids laughing sound effect* and no matter what, you just can’t seem to make it on time. *grr sound effect* Do you feel in your current work environment that you can approach your boss and say, “listen, there is just no way that I can make it on time for 9:00 a.m., is there a way that we can push it back?” Do you think that your boss would be okay with it, or do you think that you would get the “get over it, everyone else can make it at 9:00 a.m., so can you.” response?

Tanisha: The main thing is that if the system cares for you, it makes it easier for you to care about the system, and do your best for it. It’s sort of a cycle, because it’s the people that make a system, there aren’t any systems that exist without people.

Liz: Next, the conversation takes a turn. We’ll be right back.

Don Lando: My name is Don Lando, I’m the Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Management at Medaille College. I work in the Office of Post-Traditional and Graduate Admissions, and my job is to make your educational goals a reality. We strive hard to make the transition into our graduate programs as easy as possible. With over eleven graduate programs here at Medaille, we can help you evaluate your educational and career goals. Visit us at Medaille.edu, and let us guide you to career success.

Liz: When I first started the episode, I said we’d be diving into adapting because the subject was much deeper than I originally thought, and it was interesting. I didn’t think we’d get the one, two, three steps on how to adapt easier, but I didn’t realize we’d head in this direction. Every single person I talked to—Mandy, Tanisha, Mary Beth, we all kept coming back to this one idea, this one thought, this one word. It was empathy.

Mary Beth: I think sometimes empathy is something that we don’t focus enough on, and putting ourselves in the shoes of other people, “Why are they behaving that way? Or why did that happen? Or why might they have reacted that way?”, and how important that is.

Liz: Let’s do a quick recap on what empathy is, and how it differs from sympathy. We’ll let Tanisha handle this one.

Tanisha: At the core of sympathy is “those are your circumstances, not mine,” so the first thing you say is “oh my god, I feel really sorry for them,” what you’re saying unconsciously, or under your breath to yourself is “thank god that’s not me”. The main thing with empathy is not so much putting yourself in their shoes, but connecting with that feeling within yourself. Which one of us has not experienced sadness? Which one of us has not experienced grief? Which one of us has not experienced fear? Anxiety? Whatever it is about, and that’s the human experience that connects us. That’s the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy means being able to connect to the pain within me, so that I can be a better support to you in the pain within you. The biggest difference between sympathy and empathy is, are you willing to connect to your pain? In order to be empathetic to them, you have to connect with your own pain, versus denying it.

Liz: So, let’s head back to that example where you’re trying to make it to that 9:00 a.m. meeting. You go to your boss; you ask them to push the meeting back. They approach it in a sympathetic way, they feel bad for your circumstance, but no, we’re not moving the meeting, everyone else can make it. Versus, they take the empathetic approach, they listen to the fact that you have to drop your kids off at school and they remember when their kids were young, or they remember a situation when they had familial obligations or some sort of obligation that there was no way around it. They’re putting themselves in a situation similar to yours and remembering what that felt like to them. They move the meeting back.

Mary Beth: You know you talk a lot about kindness, and a big push on kindness counts or kindness matters, and I like that better than the bullying campaigns because the bullying naturally says “we’re aggressive and you’re out there,” where the kindness is “are we teaching these skills to the kids, or are we more concerned about standardized test results, or the amount of curriculum we can plow through?” In reality, it doesn’t matter if you’ve plowed through your curriculum, if half the kids have fallen off your train on the way, what have you accomplished? Nothing meaningful.

Liz: So now that we know some important keys that go into this, how then do we create an adaptable environment?

Mary Beth: I think, you know, adapting has a to do a lot with our life skills, so it needs to be with how we take care of ourselves. You know, everything from how we groom, to how we feed ourselves, to how we’re able to meet our basic needs.

Liz: It’s not just the physical elements though, those are important to make your body feel good, but it’s also the mental aspect of how we treat ourselves.

Tanisha: When I’m working with patients or clients one-on-one, rarely do I have to teach them to be empathetic toward others, if I can’t teach them how to be empathetic toward themselves first, and that’s where I think empathy and self-compassion matters the most. If I can’t be empathetic to my own struggles—to how I struggle in this world, it’s very hard for me to truly be empathetic when I see you struggling. If what I say to myself is “stop being a weakling, show some strength, get on with it,” if that’s what I say to myself, then why would I not say that to you? But, if I say to myself “I remember what it’s like when I was in a difficult situation–it may not have been the same situation, but I know what it feels like to be in pain, and right now I think you’re in pain,” I can access my own pain in order to recognize that when I was in pain and somebody telling me to get over it wasn’t effective, the same way that me telling you to get over it won’t be effective. What’s effective is when I sit down and I talk to you about the pain, and I turn around and say “this is a struggle in life, I’ve had these struggles I’m sure you have it too, what can I do to be supportive? What can I do to be a little more helpful in this?” When you’re being a jerk to yourself, you cannot help but be a jerk to somebody else. It’s not gonna hurt as much but if you can recognize how much pain you cause yourself, you will protect others from pain.

Liz: So, what did we learn today about adapting? It’s that it’s not easy—it’s complex and very much interpersonal. It’s not something that easily can be done if just one person is involved, and if you think about situations where you have to adapt every day, it’s not just dependent on how strong willed you are as a person, but the environment. Really, if we want to successfully adapt, it’s gonna take all of us looking within ourselves to find that empathy for others and their situations because at the end of the day, what do we want?

Mary Beth: You know, I think we all want to feel valued no matter if we’re a child, or we’re an adult in the workplace, and we want to know that our voice matters and that it makes a difference. In my opinion, in order to do that, we need to have that human element of being able to know each other as people, before employees, before colleagues, before teacher or student, before whatever relationship you’re going to put into play.

Liz: To learn more about our experts and to keep the conversation going, you can visit LifeWellLearned.Edu, and if you haven’t done it yet—make sure you subscribe to Life Well Learned on wherever you get your podcasts. I want to thank our experts Mary Beth Scumaci, and Tanisha Joshi, as well as a special thanks to Mandy Manning, the 2018 Teacher of the Year. You can learn more about her students and the work that she’s done at MandyManning.com. Life Well Learned is brought to you by the Medaille Alumni Association, I’m Liz Mantel and we’ll see you next time.