Critical friendship as everyday #RUOK

Here in Australia, it is #RUOK Day today.

It is the 10th anniversary of the start of #RUOK. The aim of the organisation that coordinates the day and the year-round events that make RUOK an everyday activity is “to inspire and empower everyone to meaningfully connect with people around them and support anyone struggling with life”.

For the past five years, I have had the immense good fortune to be a critical friend to coaches, teachers and educational technologists. Throughout that time, I have been guided by John MacBeath’s observation:

The critical friend is a powerful idea, perhaps because it contains an inherent tension. Friends bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. They are forgiving and tolerant of your failings. They sometimes even love you for your faults. Critics are, at first sight at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure. Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as the ‘true friendship’ – a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique. (1998: 118)

My critical friend conversations with coaches explored the very public nature of their work and the implications of their roles for their families, their friends … and themselves. The five years of conversations enabled us to go to some very private places that challenged and celebrated their lived experience.

My conversations with educational technologists took place at a time of organisational change and uncertainty about the institution’s direction. Our conversations discussed the physiological and psychological impacts of uncertainty.

All these conversations were held in confidence. I did receive funding to do this but I was clear that there would be no reporting of individual cases only of generic conversations.

On #RUOK Day I am sharing parts of one of my reports that arose out of critical friend conversations with educational technologist and shared with the institution’s leaders. It considered how we might value each other rather than engage in rhetoric about caring.


Introduction

This paper addresses being valued in an organisation that learns. It is a commitment to equitable and respectful treatment of all members …

In writing this, I am mindful of Miller Mair’s observation:

Words are substantial, like paint or clay. They are not transparent and secondary. They tell their own tales. They muscle in wherever they are used to influence everything around them with the stories they wish to tell. They bring with them baggage from other places and other times. They lead off in directions that speak of their relationships with other words and other things. Words, and the choice of words in relationship, create realities of their own and do not point to things we suppose are separate and of superior importance.

I am mindful too that I am writing this specifically for two colleagues who have trusted me to produce this narrative.

The higher education institution is adopting a raft of business intelligence tools that monitor and report on staff and student performance. In organisations that have a mechanistic approach to performance these tools prioritise surveillance over care, and treat individuals as objects of study rather than subjects of appreciative inquiry. I believe that the institution is in danger of becoming such a mechanistic environment. I am hopeful that the University’s conversations about strategic direction is able to reduce this danger as might genuine consideration of staff performance review processes.

My view is that the institution can let go of aspirations to be “national leaders” or to be highly ranked in a variety of global indicators. The rhetoric of external recognition could be enabled by respectful, deep listening in our lived experience at the institution. Process would deliver outcome in an institution that avows to “walk-the-talk”.

This requires the University to value our staff. Recently, Brenda Leibowitz (2017) proposed:

… given that so many academics are intrinsically motivated to teach well, they should not be viewed as mere instruments of policy and strategic exigencies. Instead, they must be treated as academic partners whose role as professionals should be respected. Their importance must be acknowledged and they must be seen as accountable, responsible, thinking and feeling beings – not workhorses chasing global rankings for the benefit of their institutions’ reputations. (My emphasis)

The institution has promoted a narrative of engagement and retention for its student cohorts. I think this is vital for our staff too.

In the last year, I have become extremely concerned for the mental and physical well-being of some colleagues. I have a sense that unless significant changes are made in how we value each other we will continue to live in a threatening rather than enabling organisation that could learn to be different.

We can gain ground (and lose it) and this requires an agility in leadership that trusts and values colleagues whose role it is to engage and retain. There can be space for bottom-up renewal as well as top-down imposition.

I believe each of us has a responsibility to exert our agency to be valued and to value others.


My aim in writing the paper was to give voice to concerns that remain unspoken in fearful employee-employer relationships.

It was nourished by the idea that RUOK conversations are an everyday, formative commitment.

When I have my critical friend conversations, I have in mind conversations I had with Gavin Larkin many years ago.

Today is a very special day to remember him and his journey to support us all in the adventure of caring and being cared for.

Photo Credit

RUOK Mate?

The Shock of Sudden Death

I did not put ‘suicide’ in the title of this post. But this post is about the impact of suicide on those who are left behind.

It is about the shock, guilt and grief of those who are bereft after sudden death, wondering how this could have happened when the person who has died was loved so much.

The death of Daniel Vickerman this week has renewed conversations about love and loss.

Half a century ago, Erwin Stengel wrote:

The act of suicide which represents both personal unhappiness and the belief that one’s fellowman is powerless to remedy his condition is differentiated from attempted suicide which may involve an appeal component.

Suicide does not give any of us the opportunity to address an appeal or cry for help. We are left, as in Peter FitzSimons’ eulogy lamenting. Being with others supports us in our helplessness and disbelief.

There were 3,027 deaths by suicide in Australia in 2015. That is eight deaths per day. It is an unabating statistic.

In 2009, Gavin Larkin started R U OK fourteen years after his father’s suicide that “left family and friends in deep grief and with endless questions”.

RU OK’s mission is “to inspire and empower everyone to meaningfully connect with people around them and support anyone struggling with life”.

I shared my experience of my brother John’s suicide with Gavin Larkin back in 2010 in a post to acknowledge RU OK Day.

This was Gavin’s reply:

I started R U OK?Day in memory of my dad Barry.
I loved reading your story.
John would be proud of you and proud that you can now associate his death with a positive outcome.
My dad was my hero and the person I felt I was most like so his death wasn’t only devastating it also scared the shit out of me.
If this was possible for him was it also possible for me?
I suspect as brothers similar emotions or thoughts may have come into play for you. I hope you are ok?
Apart from realizing I wasn’t dad the biggest step forward came for me when I forgave him for what he did.
Just as you were lucky to have John as a brother, he was lucky to have you.
Good luck Keith
kind regards
Gavin

The sledge hammer part of Gavin’s message was “the biggest step forward came for me when I forgave him for what he did”.

I am still trying to deal with my forgiveness thirty-five years after my brother’s death. In my case, this forgiveness is encapsulated within a profound sense of absence.

It is no surprise that Gavin’s mission was to address suicide. The experience of it as a family member changes everything. RU OK draws upon the work of Thomas Joiner, whose father had committed suicide.

My brother, John, is in the bottom left of this picture, recorded after a day’s training in the sand dunes of North Wales.

I am mindful that the death of a public person like Daniel, or even my brother, John, so long before the immediacy of social media, does not prioritise that death over the thousands of others each year or the seven others on the same day.

What it does do, through the very public nature of the death, is to give us another opportunity to be sensitive to our family and friends.

Research about the well-being of rural men (Margaret Alston, 2012) and more recent discussions about retired athletes (Bruce Reider, 2016; Everett Lehman, Misty Hein & Christine Gersic, 2016) had added to our knowledge about the social contexts of death by suicide.

Bruce Reider concludes his editorial with this observation:

The best evidence we have to date suggests that, while these veteran football players are not immune to the possibility of suicide, they have no special predisposition for it.

This is both reassuring and troubling. As a family member we are left wondering ‘Why Daniel?’, ‘Why John?’. The shock of death by suicide is difficult to release.

Gavin found he could forgive.

I do not drink, which is fortunate, so sometimes I immerse myself in poetry.

Today, as I was thinking through this post, I found a book of Kevin Gilbert‘s poems, Black from the Edge (1994). The final poem in the anthology is Epitaph.

Poetry is for me the balm of forgiveness.

Families who have experienced suicide do carry on. I think the difficulties of grief, guilt and longing come when friends are going about their lives and we are trying to get on with ours.

Poetry works for me in this eternity.

Kevin writes

Weep not for me … my love is

still with you, wherever you are

until forever.

You will find me in quiet moments

in the trees, amidst the rocks,

the cloud and beams of sunshine

indeed, everywhere for I, too, am

a part of the total essence of

creation that radiates everywhere

about you, eternally.

Photo Credit

Daniel Vickerman (Kym Smith, The Sydney Morning Herald)

R U OK? Day 2015

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Today is R U OK? Day.

Although each day is an R U OK? day for me, this annual event focusses my thoughts.

I think about my brother, John. I think about Gavin Larkin, the founder of R U OK? Day.

I think too about my involvement in high performance sport and what we can do to reduce the psychological and social burdens we place on young people.

R U OK? Day coincides this year with World Suicide Prevention Day. In its observation of the day, Suicide Prevention Australia remembers “those we have lost to suicide and acknowledges the suffering suicide brings when it touches our lives”.

My brother, John, took his own life thirty-three years ago. Whenever I see a game of football, I think of him.

Because of him, I think of all other footballers too. He is forever young in my thoughts … and I realise that this is the tragedy of suicide.

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Photo Credit

Holding Dad’s Hand (Deb, CC BY 2.0)