Difficult conversations are better conversations

“More of your conversation would infect my brain.”

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus

As a much overdue follow up to previous posts here and here about conversations in schools, I speak a great deal about the importance of compassionate, candid professional relationships to drive forward the individual as a professional, but also the collective achievements of a school community as a whole. I regularly share my thoughts around how if we were a business, working relationships would be our product: the professional relationships that we build and maintain with colleagues has a monumental impact upon our own sense of wellbeing, clarity around purpose and goals, retention even.

A far cry from the open plan office and the sometimes daily catch-ups of the corporate world, our most personal or professionally valued conversations are rushed episodes behind closed classroom doors: snatched moments in the slithers of a timetable or at a compromise of something that feels just as important- like lunch for example, or leaving on time. This is perhaps why, at times, we fail to have the conversations that we need to have to ensure working relationships exist to provide clear thinking, and helpful feeling.

Whilst we work harder than many professions to maintain relationships with colleagues, we do it all the same, because it is essential to core elements of our work. If we fail to work collaboratively around whole-school policy, curriculum development or the improvement of classroom strategy, and our relationships don’t enable us to do so, then we merely multiply the work involved to reach our goals over the longer term.

It’s more than that, of course- it’s not simply more efficient to work better with others: it makes us want to come to work everyday. It means the minutes of our working life are filled with purposeful, meaty conversations that leave us knowing the right things, and feelings the right things. A great deal of conversations fall apart as a result of feeling like we’re not being heard, or leaving without hearing what we needed to hear, at a loss as to what the key parts of information were to take away and action. I like to start by thinking about how we might approach conversations with a sense of reframing the lens, but also putting a structure in place that enables us to discuss items of importance with incision, yet not compromising on compassion at the same time.

Before the conversation

As a pre requisite to the conversation itself, ensure that what may be perceived as the difficult conversation is the conversation you have first. Often, difficult conversations are just better conversations: the anticipation is the difficulty on the most part, as opposed to the conversation itself. It is also worth remembering that often, not having the conversation puts colleagues at a point of uncertainty more than just simply not having the conversation- it is the same reason why a ‘can we talk after school?’ email pinged out at 8am never had the makings of a diffusive or collaborative discussion.

Equally, making yourself available to have such conversations is key: do colleagues know when you will be available to have a conversation without a tightly constrained time limit? If you line manage others, having a specific time where you are available is key, but if you are not in a position to be readily available and fully attentive, finding a specific time to do so gives the much-needed implication of value to the conversation itself.

Framing the conversation

It is important that we lead discussions with the double-layered litmus test:

What do we want to walk away knowing?

How do we want to walk away feeling?

Once we have clarity of the information that needs to be discussed, coupled with the fact that, ordinarily, we want individuals to feel empowered to do something with that information, it enables us to consider a structure that might help us to achieve both our these objectives.

Lead with humanity

The human touch of a conversation ensures that we remember we’re not operatives: our working relationships are not just based on to-do lists or completed tasks and that whilst these do offer fulfilment, they pay less attention to the more intrinsic motivation of the process and the longer term. By asking how we are, how our children are, how the weekend was, how that recipe worked out, how that gin recommendation went (all conversations I have had in the last six months!), we ensure that conversations centre around people, not processes.

Get to the sticky part: the importance of language

Some less effective conversations that I have participated in have been where the purpose of the conversation was unclear, either through the delay in the main part of the conversation itself, or the language used to convey this main message. If the purpose of the conversation is to clarify and understand, how are we framing questions that do exactly that? If the purpose of the conversation is to share that a deadline is outstanding and where can we support, how are we ensuring that we use ‘we’ and not ‘you’? If the purpose of the conversation is to speak directly about a piece of work, how have we reframed it from the person to the problem? By making deliberate choices around collective nouns, passive voice, questions set with the caveat ‘I want to ask a few things to understand a little better,’ then we shift to a far more collaboratively way of debating or resolving whatever it may be that needs to be debated or resolved. It means that we walk away knowing what we wanted to know, through reducing the possibility or distortion or miscommunication. But do the other party walk away knowing what we wanted them to know?

Agreeing a common language: leaving with a plan

This is where closing the conversation with clarifying to understand one another, before then agreeing the next steps is possibly the most fundamental part of the discussion itself. Agreeing two or three key summary points- and if it helps to drop this into an email, I would suggest doing it there and then to avoid fall into a ‘catch-out’ culture, where emails might be perceived as documenting evidence – is an excellent way to talk through the process of what’s next, implicitly checking that you are on the same page. Inviting questions, asking where there are opportunities to support, and pre agreeing how the workload might be distributed in advance as a synthesis of a discussion are all key ways of providing clarity. It can sometimes be interpreted that the desired feeling of a purposeful conversation is the fluffy stuff, but often, this sense of a plan, with a concerted effort to consider pragmatic aspects such as manageability, the balance between what is or is not possible or plausible for an individual or team to deliver within a specific time frame, or the particular expertise required to complete the task.

If our conversations move away from ‘you need to, I need to’ and shift towards Donaldson’s use of the mobius strip, then this intentional effort to perceive the perception of another can only improve the quality of our working relationships overall.

References

https://simplecomplexitybook.com/2017/09/10/mental-models-and-the-mobius-strip/

ScottKimRadical Candor: Be a Kick-ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

Scott, Susan. Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time. New York, N.Y: Viking, 2002

Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead. Vermilion

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