Resist the Righting Reflex

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Unsolicited advice is the junk mail of life (Bern Williams, in Miller & Rollnick)

Compassionate listening – stepping back and allowing learners to individually explore their ambivalence, concerns and ideas about an issue or concept – is at the crux of individual discovery and adult learning.

Here’s the rub: as educators we want to support student success, so when we see someone heading in the wrong direction or struggling, we’re often galvanized into action with all good intentions! This “Righting Reflex” is essentially the imperative to do something…to “fix it”, and often kicks in without any conscious awareness (see Miller and Rollnick’s 2013 text on Motivational Interviewing).

To add clarity: A a quick illustration of the Righting Reflex from a conversation I had on my way in to work this morning (for real):

Me: “I’m thinking that I’d like to buy a Smart Car.” 

Significant other: “Well what about a Honda CR-V? I know someone who has one for sale.” 

Me:   ?   !   ?

O-kayyy…How useful was that unsolicited (albeit well-meaning) advice in helping me think things through? And, to be fair, my own Righting Reflex isn’t hard to activate in both personal and professional spheres. Learner autonomy as being at the heart of constructivist approaches is widely discussed and accepted, yet in practice it’s “simple but not easy”.

In an ideal world, educators validate, explore, question. They evoke and encourage students to critically examine different sides of an issue. This doesn’t negate our roles of teacher, guide or concerned other, but it does place the onus – quite rightly – on the learner’s capacity for decision-making and problem-solving.

A big part of education in health care (and other fields) is less about teaching the correct answer, than in facilitating the process of ethical and nuanced judgment and decision-making. If we can resist the Righting Reflex we’re creating a positive space in which to explore, experiment and make mistakes.

So…as for my own automotive decision-making process…a design endorsement by the MOMA may just tip the balance!

  1. Kim-Jong Wheels said:

    Your conversation sounds very similar to one I have had with Dennis:
    Me: I am thinking of my next car being of the smart variety.
    Dennis: I really think a Jetta would suit you.
    Me: No, a convertible smartie is definitely more my style.
    Dennis: The Jetta has great fuel economy.
    Me: If you like the Jetta so much you buy a stinking Jetta!

    Post script: I am still driving my 1996 car. I simply bought some stock in the parent company Daimler. I understand completely your interest in the smartie, they are just so cute!

    Your blog continues to rock,

    Kim-Jong Wheels

  2. Holla! Thanks for sharing Kim, and in the end my mind ruled my heart and I went with a Scion IQ: I like the 2 extra seats, and I know I would have cringed every time I brought Smart into the Mercedes dealership for an oil change.

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