Speaking Up and Stepping Up | Handel Group

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Speaking Up and Stepping Up

Hear how I got my DREAM and turned it into my own nightmare!

I was teaching the class of my dreams. 

A year-long capstone project, designed to immerse my graduate students into the real world of development studies, providing a government think-tank in Southeast Asia with actual, usable policy analysis…and I had just won a university-wide presidential award for a similar class. How lucky were these students, right?!

Or were they…

Six weeks into the semester, I learned a student had launched a complaint against me in – get this – week one! And if that wasn’t odd and horrifying enough, the Department of Academic Affairs had been sending out emails and holding meetings with members of the class to assess “the situation,” aka ME, and no one – not even my boss nor any of my students – had informed me.

I was crushed. Concerned. Horrified. And embarrassed. Why hadn’t anyone told me? And how could my students miss the fact that the class I designed was so brilliant – this was a once in a lifetime, real-world experience other students only dream of in the development field?!  And from me, a real-life development expert!

Thinking I’d at least get sympathy and a gasp, I told the story to my HG coach. After listening to me opine what a victim I was, she looked straight at me (and through me) on Zoom, and asked, “How can you be so doe eyed about this? 

“Where were you?”

She was right. My intuition had been telling me something was wrong since the first week of class. Standing in front of the room, something just felt weird.

Maybe it was me. 

The truth was, I was being arrogant. I knew firsthand how difficult the client could be, and that maybe I had given the students a bit too much work. Yet I convinced myself I was doing them a favor. Everyone wants a challenge, right? 

To make things worse, even after I learned that the complaint had been launched, I kept my head in the sand, avoiding discussing with my colleagues what was going on and hiding from the facts. 

I had created my own nightmare. 

Not one to let me get away with anything other than achieving my dreams, my coach sent me back to clean up the mess. We worked together to design a series of hard conversations that I was obviously (obvious to my coach, that is) avoiding, but needed for my career, dream, and soul’s sake to grow up and get resolved. Over the next three weeks, I had four difficult conversations. 

Mind you, mostly difficult because I was avoiding them from the get go.

There is one conversation, in particular, that I am hugely proud of. It was with the two graduate advisors who had been in charge of gathering information from the students. 

Here’s how it went, step by step: 

1. I got permission to have the conversation.

First of all, I emailed them to schedule a meeting. I shared my intention, connecting it to my dream for my relationship with them. 

I wanted to talk to you both so we could build a cohesive educational team to support a higher quality student engagement moving forward.


2. I shared my concerns about having the conversation. 

I was more than nervous to speak with them. I cared. I wanted it to go well. Instead of pretending to be cool and confident, I told them the truth about how I felt, how much I cared, and how I was out for it to go well and get everything fully resolved. It went something like this:

I’m sorry I didn’t come to you sooner. I haven’t done a very good job setting up our collegial relationship over the past five years and now, because of this, I’m walking around making stuff up in my head that everyone in the department is against me. I have isolated myself, so of course I found myself in a position where I needed support from you all but neither designed it, nor asked for it. 


3. Then, I OWNED my part of the problem. 

Yup, I started with myself. 

The truth for me was that I did not have a good grip on my class dynamic and I didn’t address the emerging challenges early enough, even though I sensed there was student distress…

I made mistakes and I was struggling to navigate the experience with the client at the get-go…I chose not to seek help from the organization, and as a result, I was suffering in silence and this had, not only some of the students anxious and overwhelmed, but had the class that meant the world to me suffer as well. Only not so quietly.


4. I fessed where I got hurt.

After outing myself, I went on to tell them where I got hurt, took my marbles away, and stopped playing. I was honest, without assuming my version of the story was the truth. 

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5. I gave them a chance to respond.

After speaking my truth, I encouraged them to speak their’s. I committed to listening.

From their response I learned that they had no context of what was happening behind the scenes the complaint had seemingly come out of nowhere. They also admitted to running a little wild with it, and confessed that they should have come to me first. 

I have to admit, hearing them share responsibility for the outcomes felt incredible! 


6. We came up with how to deal with the issue moving forward.

After both sides felt heard, we designed a set of promises to ensure this kind of mess never happens again. Most importantly, we agreed to meet on a more regular basis to return to our earlier days of friendship and trust. 

How’s that for LOVE and me at the helm of it? 

The more conversations I held like this, the more I became resolved with my colleagues, the more I began to see my own fingerprints on my career’s crime scene. 

Up until that moment, I had been playing small. 

How could I expect my colleagues to respect me and come to me with problems when I had my head in the sand? And as long as I believed (and acted as if) I was above my students, how would I hear them knock from those heights? 

I couldn’t. Until now…