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Civil Groups Blog

The Difficult Option

March 10, 2010

The following is an entry from my CiViL Groups Log on September 29, 2004.  All names have been changed to protect privacy.

A Strategy for Failure

Daniel isn’t getting along with one of his teachers. Not surprisingly, that teacher gave him an F. He blames the teacher for the F, and he’s mad at her. He thinks the grade is unjust. He wants to “go off on her,” meaning that he wants to cuss her out. When I asked him about the consequences of going off on a teacher, he said, “I don’t like her, so I don’t care.” Daniel’s approach to his problem is to blame, vent his rage, ignore the consequences, and give up on the class. After he had talked about it for awhile, I suggested that we look at his approach the problem.  

The Consequences

Though he said he didn’t care about the consequences, I asked Daniel to think about what they might be.  He said, “I already have an F,” implying that the worst thing had already happened.  I pointed out that his conclusion isn’t really true.  An F on the first report card of the year is not an F for the whole year.  “What other consequences would you be looking at?” I asked.  He replied that cussing out a teacher would likely get him a suspension, and it would make the relationship with his teacher even worse.  His current strategy of blaming, venting, ignoring consequences and giving up on the class might actually give him an F for the whole year.

 What Do You Want?

The important question for Daniel is, “Do you want an F for the year?” It seems ridiculous to ask such an obvious question, but David was already in the process of deciding. If he continued with his failing strategy, he would ensure that he got an F, so I asked him if that’s what he wanted. He said that he didn’t. “What grade do you want for the year?” I asked. “Anything better than an F,” he said. “A C would be ok.”  So I asked, “Are you willing to consider some other strategies aimed at getting something better than an F for the year?” “Ok,” he said.

 Brainstorming Options

Based on Daniel’s description of the situation, he has two problems. One is a grade. The other is a relationship. Both of them are damaged, but not permanently. I wrote the elements of Daniel’s failing strategy up on the board. Then I asked the group to suggest other options. As they brainstormed, I wrote their ideas on the board. With some of their suggestions, I asked for more specifics. I wrote those under the heading “Tasks”:

 FAILING STRATEGY                   OTHER OPTIONS               TASKS

Blame teacher                                         Take responsibility                  Study, work harder, ask for help

Go off on her                                            Restrain yourself                     Find an acceptable outlet for anger

Ignore consequences                           Look at consequences            

Give up on grade                                     Keep working                        

Give up on relationship                       Keep working at it                  Negotiate disagreements, show you care

 In ten or fifteen minutes the boys came up with a strategy that is more likely to lead to success than failure. It involves taking responsibility for your own grade, restraining your rage, looking at the consequences of your own actions, and working to solve your problem. In many ways this strategy is harder to put into practice. That’s why so many people resort to the failing strategy. But the failing strategy is an almost guaranteed F. The new strategy doesn’t guarantee an A, but it makes a better grade possible.

 You Get to Choose

For Daniel, the choice is really, “Do you want to the do the easy thing that leads to failure, or do you want to try the hard thing that might lead to success?” After all, it’s Daniel’s life. He gets to choose his path. Daniel is not the only one facing this choice. In the next group two boys had the same problem with different teachers. David said he was willing to try the new strategy. He hopes to improve his grade by the end of the year. Lamontez doesn’t want to try the new strategy. He is entrenched in blaming his problem on his failed relationship with the teacher. “I don’t like her. She doesn’t like me. And I don’t care.” He believes that he couldn’t negotiate with her without “going off on her,” and he’s not willing to consider other options. It’s too bad. I think ‘Tez would benefit in a lot of ways from trying to work things out with his teacher. Even if the problem really is her fault, he could become a better man by taking responsibility for his own grade, restraining himself, looking honestly at the consequences of his actions, and continuing to work at his grade and the relationship. That’s what good men do with their problems. It’s the only way to solve them.

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