The Cornered Cat
Learning from others

As an instructor, I sometimes deal with awkward moments during a class. One of the most cringe-inducing moments happens when a student raises her hand and says something like, “I had an incident. This is what happened ( ____ ). Did I do the right thing?”

It can be even more awkward when she asks, “What should I have done?”

On one hand, I love these moments because they are so powerful. It’s real, it’s personal, it happened to someone we know who’s sitting right here. We can ask her about it and see it through her eyes. How much more powerful can a teaching moment get?

On the other hand, questions like this create an emotional and—in some senses—even ethical dilemma for me as I stand at the front of a class full of students.

The emotional dilemma should be obvious. We are talking to, with, and about a survivor. She went through a terrible experience and she trusted us with the story. She almost certainly needs affirmation, and the worse her experience was, the more strongly she’s likely to need that affirmation. How could we, how dare we, say anything even slightly critical of the things she did? She was there, we weren’t. She faced the dragon, we didn’t. Whatever she did to survive, she survived. Good for her. If she made any mistakes, she doesn’t want to hear about them. No matter how bad any those mistakes may have been in some objective sense—she survived. So there’s a great big emotional bear trap right there, just waiting for us to fall into it.

The ethical dilemma flows almost directly out of the emotional one. Some choices are, in actual fact, better than others. Sometimes someone lives through an event because of sheer good luck, not by doing the things that give her the best chance of surviving. Her situation is already past, and she may need reassurance to put her nightmares to rest—but you have other students. And you have a responsibility to those students. There may be someone sitting the class who really, really needs to hear how to make the right choice.

It would be awful if one woman’s story led another woman to make dangerous choices that lead her into a bad situation, or that make a bad situation even worse. Luck happens, but we should never count on it.

It’s an unusual instructor who hasn’t faced a moment like that with her students.

Every situation is different and the dynamics of every class are different, so I can’t give you any one size fits all solutions to these dilemmas. But I can tell you the one important thing I’ve learned: in moments like these, it’s more important to listen than it is to talk. Most of the time, the student already knows what she needs to hear, even if she doesn’t consciously realize it. If you listen hard enough, you will hear her say it or not-quite say it. Then you can repeat the important lesson back to her. She will think you are brilliant, and will think you have taught her something new. But you will know the truth: that she taught both you and herself the thing she and the other students needed to learn from her situation.

5 Responses to Learning from others

  1. momwithagun says:

    I’ve been on both sides of this challenge – as a survivor twice over of asocial violence, and now as an instructor and for seven years as a rape crisis counselor – and I agree with you that it’s a tough line to walk.

    Something that worked well for me on the receiving side when I took my first self defense class many years ago, and which I’ve used as an instructor a few times – is an answer like, “You survived what happened to you, so clearly the choices you made were the right ones for you in that situation with what you had to work with. Let’s talk for a minute about other things that would have tilted the odds even more in your favor.” Yes, it’s shading the truth a bit to couch “mistakes” in those terms, but my experience has been that a response like that validates the survivor’s feelings enough to maneuver around some self-doubt and self-blame.

    Someone said to me once, “we do the best we know how at the time, and when we know better we DO better.” That certainly resonated for me in regard to my own experiences, and now I train and practice and study and teach so I CAN know better and so if, heaven forbid, that moment comes again, I CAN do better.

  2. Old NFO says:

    +1 on Mom, there are so many situations one can never possibly cover all the options… And who knows what will happen in a given one; it’s almost impossible to predict outcomes.

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  4. mgutterres says:

    “in moments like these, it’s more important to listen than it is to talk.” That.

    What I try to say is something to the effect of, “let’s look at what worked, and why.”

  5. A Girl says:

    I, too, have been on both sides of this issue and I could not agree more with your post.

    If someone is still reeling from the effects and from the guilt, they need reassurance, but that is not exclusive to “here are some things that might have helped you” or “could serve you better in the future”.

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