By Jennifer Abrams, 2019 Conference Presenter
Everyone is busy. Yes. True. If we have something to do, we want to do it efficiently and then check off the task. I relate. If we can send an email, put something out in mass messaging, or get the word out fast on the intercom, we like to do it and then check it off. Some things can be communicated in that way but hard conversations aren’t one of those things. Hard conversations about team accountability, co-teaching challenges, performance reviews, classified staff snafus or parent calls; those conversations take more time and more planning. The conversations can be awkward, difficult and emotional. And, the conversations haveto be had. If something is educationally unsound, physically unsafe or emotionally damaging and you don’t think coaching or inquiry will be the best way of communication to get the point across, you need to have a hard conversation. If you want to be effective as a colleague, a coach or an administrator, you need to not only have hard conversations, but to make them humane and growth producing as well.
In the spirit of the “Top 10” checklists out there, I will go one step further. Here’s a Top 3 checklist. The top 3 key questions which can make a difficult conversation even more professional, more humane and more effective.
Question 1: Do I need to have a clarifying conversation INSTEAD of a hard conversation?
Blaine Lee says, “Almost all conflict is the result of violated expectations.” We think we have been clear. So, it makes sense that we should be able to speak up and express our concern, but pause and ask yourself: does everyone know what the expectations are? Are the standards evident? Did the job description get reviewed and discussed? Have we revisited the group norms for how we work together? Often times we think everyone is on the same page and yet clarification hasn’t happened. Expectations aren’t clear.
I worked with one new principal who was frustrated that the team leads at his middle school “weren’t doing their jobs” and then discovered there was no job description.
We need to be ‘two feet in the present’ and clarification conversations need to take place before hard conversations. Clarity before accountability.
Question 2: Do I know what the problem is and can articulate it in a professional way?
I state in my workshop that during a hard conversation there should be no saliva. A saliva moment is when something is said too pointedly; it is too generalized and too opinionated. The other person grimaces, sucks in a breath and saliva is heard. It is the moment of the ‘too harsh’ statement. When we get frustrated, we go emotional with our language. “Too” or “Very.” “Always” or “Never” – adverbs that inflame. Do I know how to say what I want to say but in a professional way? And can it be tied to language of the job description. The standards. The expectations.
One principal said, “I just want to tell this person to step up and do her job.” We brainstormed a more professional way to speak to the teacher. We moved away from the global and the inflammatory to language that was professional and aligned with the job description. Moving out of the emotional isn’t easy, but it is the more mature way to voice a concern.
Question 3: Do I have an answer to ‘What do you want me to do about it?’
Many a principal has been infuriated with me because I ask them to consider responses to the question above. Haven’t we hired a professional? Doesn’t the adult we have in our employment know how to do the job? Why do we need to spoon-feed them by giving the staff responses to this question?
It is understandable to be frustrated, but at this moment in time, the person is looking for some takeaways and you want to see a different behavior. They want to get a more specific sense of what the actions should be to have you see them as effective in their role, and it is a humane and growth producing thing to do to have a few answers at the ready that are doable. Consider the frustration one might feel when they are told they aren’t collaborating effectively and yet the person sharing this with them can’t describe one action they could take. Many times we are too broad with our suggestions. “Engage more.” “Infuse more technology.” “Be a better colleague.” Instead it is better to say, “Here are some behaviors that indicate what I mean by engagement.” “Here are some ideas of what collegiality could look like.” Being prepared with some answers is the growth-producing thing to do.
We all need to work on thinking before we speak in order to be more professional and supportive for when we do. Yes, it will take some time and in the fast paced world of education time isn’t something we have much of, yet putting some thought in before we speak is worth it. Making hard conversations more humane and growth producing will benefit all who learn, teach and work in and with our schools.
Jennifer Abrams is the author of Having Hard Conversations(Corwin, 2009), The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicate, Collaborate & Create Community(Corwin, 2013) and Hard Conversations Unpacked: The Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs(Corwin, 2016) and the upcoming book, Swimming in the Deep End: Four Foundational Strategies for Leading Successful School Initiatives(Solution Tree, March, 2019). She can be reached at www.jenniferabrams.com or on Twitter @jenniferabrams.