Hiking Refusal: How to Make it OK
There is still a question I remember from my initial interview for the field instructor position at Evoke: What do you do if a student refuses to hike? At the time of my interview, I was fresh out of college and had little to no meaningful experience dealing with resistance, defiance, manipulation, and other challenging behavioral patterns that we regularly see from our Evoke students. So, of course, my answer was: um, say okay? I had no idea what to do but give in, say okay, and let a person do what they were going to do. I considered saying I would try to convince them to hike, but I knew that when someone tried to convince me to do something I didn’t want to do, I only dug my heels in deeper. Little did I know, there was more wisdom in my response than young me could have realized.
After I gave my hesitant answer, the woman interviewing me replied with, “Sure, but you can only say okay if it is really okay.” We had a brief discussion about this during which she shared some really insightful things that I promptly forgot after the interview and was pleasantly reminded of during my third week in the field.
During that third week as a field instructor, I was working in an adolescent girls group. As we were preparing to head out on a longer hike over tougher-than-average terrain, we were discussing the proposed route as a staff team. One of the staff shared that they had worked in the group two weeks prior and had concerns that one of the girls might refuse mid-hike. The most senior staff member seemed completely undaunted by this information and continued to talk about the hiking plan without batting an eye. I was confused by his nonchalance, and I felt anxious as we set out to hike.
Sure enough, partway through the hike, the girl stopped in the middle of a wash (dry river bed), sat on her pack, and dramatically announced, “I’m not going any further!” My stomach dropped, and I had no idea how to react or respond. Luckily, the senior staff member, without hesitation, set down his pack beside her, said “okay,” and started carving a ring and chatting with her about music. Everyone followed suit, and we all sat in the wash talking about music. I wondered if everyone had somehow missed that one of the students just declared she was refusing to hike while we were nowhere near our campsite for the night.
After about a half hour, that same student asked, “Okay, can we keep going? I want to get to camp before dark.”
I remained thoroughly confused until rehashing the day’s events with the staff team after we put the group to bed that night. I asked the senior staff about his relaxed response to her defiance, and his answer made me remember the question from my interview. He said that he always planned, on every hike, for someone to refuse mid-way or not be able to continue for one reason or another. He always brought extra water and food as a way to help him stay relaxed in just such a situation. He said, “When you try to push someone when they don’t want to be pushed, they usually won’t move. So you have to make it okay not to push them. You got to stay relaxed.”
This lesson reminds me to ask myself how I stay relaxed in situations where someone is presenting with defiance. Of course, not every instance of defiance can be soothed with logistical planning and foresight. Sometimes the way to make another’s resistance okay has more to do with my internal experience of that resistance. Sometimes it has more to do with my ability to separate a person from their behaviors, to realize a reaction is possibly not about me (or to accept it when it is), or to understand and be accountable for my own reactivity in response to someone’s defiance. I often found myself feeling angry or frustrated at students when they refused a given task or chore. When I looked more at this feeling, I realized that more often than not, my reaction came from a place of insecurity, or feeling that their choices reflected on me-–that I was a bad staff if the student did not do x, y, or z. As I started to recognize this pattern, I felt better equipped to deal with resistance in a way that felt more peaceful for me and ultimately invited less resistance from the other person. I learned how to say, “Okay.”
Needless to say, there are boundaries and limits that have firmer lines than what I am describing here, as there are situations where allowing certain behaviors is unsafe. My point in sharing the above story is more about resistance within the context of relationships and how I continue to learn that the best way to cope with this is to find out what I need to make it okay for me.
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