Navigating Difficult Conversations

“… communication is at the heart of everything educators do. Our schools are only as good as the conversations within them.”

Jim Knight (Better Conversations, 2015)

Coaching is an Art, not a Science

As I look ahead to my second year as an instructional coach, I am excited to continue practicing coaching conversations. At times – while reading books, online articles, connecting with other coaches on Twitter, learning with and from my colleagues – I have felt overwhelmed about the ‘right’ way to coach. On many occasions, I have been reminded that coaching – like teaching – is an art, not a science. I am also reminded that coaching conversations (and effective communication in general) can be very simple. As mentioned in The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever (2016), instructional coaching does not have to be overcomplicated, overly theoretical or overthought. I also really appreciate Kathy Perret’s recent blog post The KEYS to Coaching Conversations which also recommends that coaches keep things simple. I am looking forward to using these resources, as well as re-reading Elena Aguilar’s books The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation (2013) and The Art of Coaching Teams: Building Resilient Communities That Transform Schools (2016) to remind myself of what I learned at her workshop, as I continue to discover and refine my own personal coaching style during coaching conversations.

the coaching habit the art of coaching the art of coaching teams.jpeg

Difficult Conversations

While I want to continue to practice and reflect on my coaching conversations so that I can improve, I have also spent much time this summer thinking about how to navigate difficult conversations in a broader sense. During my first year as an instructional coach (within a newly-adopted coaching model), I found myself involved in – and sometimes facilitating – many difficult conversations. Perhaps surprisingly, these difficult conversations were rarely with the teachers I am responsible for coaching; my experiences with difficult conversations during my first year were not often related to one-on-one coaching. More often, the difficult conversations I found myself in happened when collaborating with peers, other colleagues or administrators.

“Crucial Conversations” need to be “Better Conversations”

In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (2012), Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler define “crucial conversations” as those that involve opposing opinions, high stakes and strong emotions. Sometimes the difficult conversations I participated in left me inspired, uplifted and in awe of what a team can accomplish together. However, there were times when I should have spoken up during a difficult conversation, but I remained quiet. There were times when I felt frustrated, dismissed or undervalued. There were times I saw others silenced, or noticed tension, and did not know how to shift the dynamic. Perhaps there were times others were uncomfortable or frustrated, but I was unaware. The perspective of my new role helped me realize that for much of my career I was probably able to avoid many crucial conversations, or perhaps I sometimes reacted with silence by withdrawing or avoiding when conversations become difficult. Crucial Conversations explains that when people feel unsafe, they become either silent (masking, avoiding, or withdrawing) or violent (controlling, labeling or attacking). In my current role, moving to silence is not an option, since “better conversations” are needed to ensure trust building and strong relationships. In his book Better Conversations: Coaching Ourselves and Each Other to be More Credible, Caring and Connected (2015), Jim Knight says “one of the most important and powerful ways we can improve our schools is to improve the way we interact with each other.”

crucial conversations.jpg better conversations.jpeg

Constructive Conflict

During the past year I learned about many aspects of Adaptive Schools through colleagues who have previously been trained. (I am very much looking forward to receiving this training at my school in the upcoming year!) Not surprisingly, I have noticed many similarities between The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative GroupsCrucial Conversations and Better Conversations as I reflected on my own “communication beliefs and habits” (Knight, 2016). Crucial Conversations refers to the importance of building shared understanding, ensuring everyone feels safe enough to put ideas on the table, and the need for clear decision making processes. Adaptive Schools uses the terms “constructive conflict”, “ways of talking” (dialogue vs discussion) and “The Seven Norms of Collaboration” (toolkit linked here).

the adaptive school

Areas of Growth

In addition to continuing to focus on the work of Adaptive Schools, my summer reading has given me some new areas of focus to help me improve my ability to navigate difficult conversations without ‘overcomplicating things’.

Crucial Conversations explains that mutual purpose is an “entrance condition” and mutual respect is a “continuance condition” in order for constructive, healthy conversations to occur. The book also recommends simply asking yourself the following questions during – or in preparation for – difficult conversations:

  • What do I really want for myself?
  • What do I really want for others?
  • What do I really want for the relationship?
  • How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

Knight outlines the following Better Conversations Beliefs that also seem simple but necessary:

  1. I see conversations partners as equals.
  2. I want to hear what others have to say.
  3. I believe people should have a lot of autonomy.
  4. I don’t judge others.
  5. Conversation should be back and forth.
  6. Conversation should be life-giving.

The four questions from Crucial Conversations and Knight’s beliefs about communication are helpful for both one-on-one coaching conversations, and difficult conversations in general. To be an effective communicator, one must be aware not only of the content of the conversation, but also have an awareness of others AND self-awareness. It is not always easy to manage everything going on in a conversation, but I know I will more confidently and effectively navigate difficult conversations with practice and reflection. The following advice from Better Conversations also resonated with me as areas in which I want to focus in order to improve my communication habits:

  • “see each conversation as a learning opportunity, not a telling opportunity”
  • “seek first to understand, then be understood” (from Covey’s 7 habits of Highly Effective People)
  • avoid formulating a response before the speaker is finished
  • when it comes to questioning, “technique … is not as important as the mindset you bring”
  • do not be too busy with tasks to connect with others – be fully present and be persistent in connecting with others

Instead of looking back at missed opportunities or mistakes made in previous difficult conversations, I find myself excited and hopeful that I am better prepared for future “crucial conversations”. Elena Aquilar’s blog post Managing Conflict in School Leadership Teams reassures me that I have made some good decisions in the past by naming conflict, reflecting on when it is appropriate to address conflict, and referring teams back to their norms.

Empathy, Trust and Relationships

I ended the school year with a reflection to remind myself that coaching is all about empathy, trust and relationships. After much reflection and learning about how to best navigate difficult conversations, it seems I have circled back to the same realization. By asking myself the four questions from Crucial Conversations and by reflecting on my beliefs and practicing habits of communication as outlined in Better Conversations, I have found manageable strategies to empathize with others and build trusting relationships that will allow me to more effectively handle difficult conversations. I am looking forward to another year of growth in my instructional coaching role!

In schools, better conversations can dramatically improve educator and student learning. When teachers are clearer, ask better questions, and foster dialogue, their students learn more.

Jim Knight (Better Conversations, 2015)

Better conversations also stand at the heart of professional learning in schools. Instructional coaches who learn to be better at listening, questioning, building emotional connections, and fostering dialogue become more effective.

Jim Knight (Better Conversations, 2016)

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