UnTeachable Moments

Most people have only heard about the teachable moments – spontaneous opportunities to gain insight and learn something new.  Yet when other people give us unsolicited feedback, want us to see the consequences of our actions, or teach us a lesson – these are called unteachable moments.  Not knowing the difference between a teachable and an unteachable moment results in frustration, annoyance, and resentment.  

Usually, unteachable moments involve power struggles.  Feeling like learning is being imposed on us, especially by authority figures such as parents, teachers, bosses, or even friends can trigger an automatic defensive reaction.  

We may believe that if we do what we’re told, then we are losing. The other person may believe that if we don’t do what they have told us, then they are letting us win. This is how suggestions and advice can trigger both parties into locking into a win-or-lose battle.

When we engage in a power struggle, we also lose any opportunity to learn from the experience.  The reflective and responsive parts of our brain go offline when the posterior region of our brain is stimulated, and our survival reactions are triggered.

Red Flags

The following cues are “red flags” that can help you recognize an unteachable moment—either as the teacher or the recipient of the teaching:

  • You only agree with some of what the other person has said.  You feel compelled to share your insights and explain the real reasons for the problem. This is called a “yes/but” because after you agree, you then bring up how the other person is wrong.
  • You or the other person’s body language gets stiff, tone of voice gets harsh, loud, sarcastic, etc. and breathing gets shallow.
  • You both keep repeating the same lines, as if the other person just didn’t get it the first  time and being redundant will help. 
  • You react with overly defiant (fight) or overly compliant (flight) behaviors.  Some people raise their voice and become argumentative (fight), while others may shut down or just give in (flight).

Redirection Strategies

Paying attention to “red flags” helps you to intervene on your own behalf. Recognizing your “red flags” allows you to redirect your attention from defensive stress reactions to strategic problem solving. The following strategies can help you stay calmer, shorten the duration of a power struggle, and even decrease the likelihood of the unteachable moment happening in the first place by not fueling the fire:

  • Breathing – Stress reactions produce shallow breathing.  Slow, deep breaths signal to your brain and body that it is okay to calm down.
  • Simply Noticing - Interpret the situation as an outside observer and don’t judge yourself or the other person.  Paying attention in this way is called mindfulness and allows the brain’s frontal cortex - the source of awareness, higher level reasoning, and resilience - to help you respond appropriately.
  • Finding Humor – Give the repeating predicament and role you find yourself in a memorable name.  For example, when I feel responsibilities being piled on, I call that role “Cinderella.” Naming it helps me stop feeling overwhelmed so that I can then explore what’s up with me. When a young male client feels put upon he becomes sarcastic, and we call that behavior being “Bart Simpson.” Naming the role helps him stop being snarky, because Bart Simpson is an obnoxious kid and that’s not how he wants to be seen.

In The Moment

  • Take a Break and Unlock – When you notice any of the red flags listed above acknowledge to yourself that you are locked into a reactive loop.  Your stuff triggers their stuff and that cycle begins to escalate.
  • Call a timeout – Bathroom breaks and getting some water are handy reasons to step away, since few people will challenge a biological need.  Once you get a break, the quickest way to unlock is to ask yourself, “What would I have done differently?”
  • Being curious and able to imagine a different behavior for yourself activates the reflective, curious, and responsive part of your brain.  You unlock.
  • What is the goal? – Many heated arguments are not about anything important. Remind yourself of what’s the point of the conversation.  It can help you accomplish something, rather than feel you have wasted your time and have kept hitting your head against a wall.
  • One Step at a Time - Propose something you both can agree on – mutually beneficial items work well.  It’s not the size of the item but that you both have taken a step in the right direction that is important.  You can build on an agreement no matter how basic.  An example would be to avoid talking about stuff at the end of the day when fatigue, hunger, or impatience tend to be higher.

Advance Work

  • Know what triggers your defensive reactions and have a plan for dealing with conflict, even if you don’t actually have to use it.  Being prepared helps you to feel confident that you will act and not react in a stressful situation.
  • Talk confidentially about your feelings, particularly the negative ones with someone who is not directly involved. If you want to try this strategy out, I am providing a free 20-minute consultation to everyone who receives my blog post.

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