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.