Tough Enough To Live With The Leaving

Ask Diane

How can I enforce my studio policy better? I finally have a policy that feels pretty good, but when parents ask me for exceptions I keep caving in because I feel bad for them. Do you have any advice for actually enforcing the studio policy I finally made?
—Janet in Palos Verdes

It’s still uncomfortable.

This year I’d decided to enforce my summer lesson policy completely. This wasn’t an actual change in policy – I’d simply decided to give no exceptions this year. I sent an email to the two families for whom I’d made an exception in previous years. (Truth be told, I’d also given an exception to a third family whose child had been going through chemotherapy the previous year and had missed so many lessons that I couldn’t possibly ask them to pay for the summer lessons they’d probably miss as well.)

The first family to respond said, “No problem. Let’s schedule those lessons!”

The second family sent an email that read, 

As you’re well aware we always travel in the summers and its unfortunate that your new policy (new to us) simply does not work for us.  So let’s just say that next week’s lesson will be the final one.  

I’m sure that Cameron will be upset, but we’ll try hard to help him understand that sometimes, in the grown-up world,  there are other considerations.

We’ve been very happy with the progress Cameron has made under your supervision.  I’m sure he will have very fond memories of his time with you.  It’s unfortunate that your new arrangement is incompatible with our needs.

Best regards,
Jim and Ann

I will never get to the point where those messages don’t sting. I’m not sure I even want to because it might mean that I didn’t feel connected to my students, each and every one.

I have, however, gotten to the point that I know how to let that energy go right past me. To accept that which cannot be changed, and to gracefully let a family move on. I don’t know why they’re choosing to leave. It may be because of my summer lesson policy. It may be because they’ve been looking for a reason to leave and this was it. I will never know.

I do know that growing more comfortable with the ebb and flow of students coming and going has made me a happier person. I’ve learned that when I change my policies, sometimes people leave. That’s OK. It’s not enjoyable, but it’s perfectly all right. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. It just means I changed my policies.

There’s a wonderful book I’ve read and re-read called Dance of Anger that helped me understand how people react to change. The author, Harriet Lerner, explained that when one changes, those around will often send “change back” messages. Here’s a quote that made me stop and think: 

It is amazing how frequently we march off to battle without knowing what the war is all about. We may be putting our anger energy into trying to change or control a person who does not want to change, rather than putting that same energy into getting clear about our own position and choices.

—Harriet Lerner in Dance of Anger

As I grow and change, so does my business. I adjust my fees, my teaching hours, and my policies to suit my needs. It makes sense that they won’t work for everyone.

I ran into a colleague a few years ago who had taken on two brothers who had left my studio. 

“They were so well prepared and seemed as if they really liked you. Why did they leave you? ” she asked.

“They didn’t like my cancellation policy,” I responded.

“Wow,” she said. “Maybe I should have one of those.”

There’s a preschool here in San Francisco that runs a booming business among the elite families in town. I once asked Jacque, the director, how he kept everything running so smoothly with an ever-full waiting list. “It’s easy, Diane,” he replied. “I don’t care if people like me. I really don’t.”

I don’t think I’ll ever reach Jacque’s level of teflon-coating where someone’s dislike for me or my policies won’t affect me. I don’t want to.

I’ve grown a different kind of skin. Tender enough to let in the love, and tough enough to live with the leaving.