Posts Tagged 'crucial conversations'

Inviting “big talk”

Make a life in which you are having the conversations you want to have.” — Laura Mott

Resilient people are proactive, and one of the ways they demonstrate that quality is by creating conversations that matter to them with their families and friends and in their work settings.

Think of those conversations as “big” rather than “small.”

While small talk has important purposes, large talk matters because it is far more likely to produce meaningful learning and to strengthen relationships.

During these conversations participants come to understand important things about themselves, each other, and the subject under discussion.

The world would be a better place, I believe, if such conversations were more frequently cultivated in families and the workplace.

In an earlier post I wrote that conversations for learning require:

• intentionality, 

• deep and mindful listening, 

• slowness that provides opportunities for thinking and elaboration, 

• an openness to learning based on a deep respect for the experiences and perspectives of others, and

an invitation, which may be as simple and straight forward as “please tell me more.” (Australian educator Edna Sackson explains how even difficult conversations can be improved when they begin with such invitations.)

What “requirements” would you add to my list?

8 “trim tabs” to significantly improve performance

Dennis Sparks

Some things leaders do matter a lot more than others. However, exactly what those activities are may vary from setting to setting.

Determining the best mix of high-impact activities comes from:

  • reflecting on experiences,
  • conversations with colleagues,
  • and professional reading, among other sources.

Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, introduced me to the metaphor of the “trim tab.” Senge wrote:

“[S]mall, well-focused actions can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements, if they’re in the right place. System thinkers refer to this principle as ‘leverage.’ Tackling a difficult problem is often a matter of seeing where the high leverage lies, a place which – with a minimum of effort – would lead to lasting, significant improvement.”

Here are my suggestions for administrators and teacher leaders regarding areas of particularly high impact. (Please note that none require additional financial resources.)

1. Having integrity, in particular consistently keeping promises and telling one’s truth.

2. Having crucial, often difficult conversations (closely linked to #1). Whenever possible, those conversations will be based on evidence.

3. Participating in high-functioning teams (or PLCs or “communities of practice”) rather than working in isolation. Teamwork is not only important for all teachers but for administrators and teacher leaders as well.

4. Consistently applying “next action thinking.” Always know the specific next action that you will take at the conclusion of a meeting or learning experience.

5. Developing and consistently applying high levels of emotional intelligence, particularly empathy (seeking first to understand, which has committed listening at its core).

6. Having a growth mindset that underscores the importance of effort and persistence as well as “intelligence.”

7. Saying “I don’t know” when you don’t.

8. Practicing new skills in public settings so that others appreciate and understand the challenges and risks that typically accompany important professional learning. There are few things more influential than leaders doing what they ask others to do.

What high-leverage activities would you add to this list?

The power of declarative sentences

Sydney Opera House/Dennis Sparks

We find comfort from those who agree with us, growth from those who do not. —Anon

Knowing when and how to have “crucial conversations” with others in the school community is a core leadership responsibility. Because such conversations surface difficult issues related to teaching, learning, and relationships, it’s understandable that leaders may want to avoid them because of the strong emotions that may ensue when “elephants in the room” are acknowledged and addressed.

An essential skill in conducting such conversations is the ability to formulate simple declarative sentences that offer an observation, declare a value, state an assumption, explain an idea, or make a request and to be willing to learn and be changed by the views of others. Many leaders, however, default in such situations to asking questions rather stating their points of view.

While a well-phrased and appropriately-timed question can pique interest, focus attention, establish an extended line of inquiry, and deepen understanding, questions can also be veiled forms of advice giving (“Have you ever thought of . . .?”) or indirect expressions of points of view (a recent New Yorker cartoon shows a panel of speakers on a stage whose moderator says to the audience, “We’d like to open the floor to shorter speeches disguised as questions.”).

Sometimes questions are the best way to open a difficult conversation, particularly when the questions are open and honest, as Parker Palmer recommends. In addition, leaders may choose to ask questions so as not to unduly influence the direction of a conversation by offering their views prematurely.

In my experience, though, leaders often ask questions because they haven’t engaged in the intellectually-demanding task of determining their point of view on a subject or because they wish to avoid conflict. As a result, the school community may never really know their views on important subjects and can only speculate about what leaders really think.

For all these reasons, I recommend that whenever possible leaders honestly and directly state their points of view in the spirit of mutual influence and learning, an approach that is very different from issuing directives or telling people what to think. Questions are replaced with declarative sentences that clearly and succinctly offer an observation, state an assumption or value, explain an idea, or make a request.

Having stated their views, leaders listen carefully to the perspectives of others and remain open to having their views changed. When offered within collaborative and trusting cultures communication improves, timely and meaningful learning occurs, and areas of agreement and disagreement are identified for further exploration.

As you plan a faculty meeting or other event, consider stating your views on the subject at hand in simple, direct, and concise declarative sentences. Offer your point of view as “your truth,” not “THE TRUTH.” Seek with genuine interest the views of others and to understand those views, believing that you can learn from what others in the school community have to say. Spend the vast majority of the time listening, not talking.

At first participants in such conversation may hear the leader’s views as THE TRUTH or as directives, particularly if the school has a history of authoritarian leadership. But with a bit of practice, a dialogue-based approach provides a reliable venue for “crucial conversations” that deepen understanding, promote the continuous improvement of teaching and learning, and enrich relationships. Such conversations are an essential feature of high-performance cultures.

Have difficult conversations

Photo/Dennis Sparks

Leaders seldom look forward to difficult conversations. But few leadership acts are more important than having what some call “crucial conversations.” Such conversations can be the first step in solving long-standing problems that diminish performance and drain energy. These conversations can also signal to the school community a leaders’ integrity in forthrightly addressing significant issues. Here are a number of suggestions related to this important skill.

“Whether you are a senior staff member or brand new to a job, it can be difficult to speak up when you see something wrong. However, not doing so can have deleterious consequences for your company, and your career. Here are the top three rationalizations for keeping silent and how to confront them.” —Management Tip of the Day

“When someone shows up late to a meeting or makes a comment that makes you uncomfortable, it can be difficult to decide if it’s a big enough deal to address or if you should let it go. In situations like these, try using the “rule of three.” —Management Tip of the Day

“Disagreeing with a colleague about whether to raise prices or when to launch a new product is often easier than confronting a colleague about an ethical issue. Here are three tips for raising the issue in a non-combative and productive way.” —Management Tip of the Day

“There’s one in nearly every work group – that certain someone whose words and/or demeanor gets you all fired up. It may be that their opinions and values are worlds apart from yours. Perhaps they are openly hostile to you or your personalities clash. But whatever the reason for the conflict, you can’t avoid or ignore that annoying work colleague because your job requires you to interact with them.

“So what’s a leader to do? What all savvy character-based business people do—take the personal high road of managing yourself to success.” —Jane Perdue

“One of the hallmarks of a great leader is their ability to truly ‘see’ viewpoints other than their own. They may not agree with these viewpoints, but they can learn to understand them. Learning to understand is the first step toward resolution and reconciliation.” —Mary Jo Asmus

Take a moment now to . . .

• identify a “crucial conversation” that is important to the achievement of an important school goal and plan how you will address the issue, including the key points you will express and the requests you will make. Rehearse the conversations with a respected colleague, if appropriate.


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