Monday, March 7, 2011

Conversations That Connect

Conversations that Connect

Difficult conversations...all principals have to have them. In the past, I dreaded them and would fret and stew about them for days.

Yet my confidence has significantly improved as I learned more about having effective conversations, both through the book Fierce Conversations and from my staff's work with the Fierce organization. This approach improved my ability to have those conversations that used to keep me up at night and left an indelible mark on our campus.

Practicing the work has enabled me to be more proactive about the tough conversations I need to have, in part because I now understand that some of the most costly conversations are the ones that never happen.

I was recently able to incorporate Fierce principles into my work in two cases. In one example, I was working with a teacher who was not being a team player. I knew I needed to step in to address some serious perceptions that were prevalent on the campus.

Often, miscommunications arise as a result of unclear expectations or misunderstandings. In this case, the teacher and I each had differing viewpoints we needed to express. Doing so honestly, though difficult at first, ultimately led to a successful resolution and improved the communication between us. The confrontation model made addressing this challenge much easier, and the results, though not perfect, were better than I had expected. In the Fierce confrontation model, we start with naming the issue. We then clarify our emotions and perspectives through specific examples and make clear why this issue is important. We also show an openness to resolving the issue and invite our conversation partners to respond.

In another example, I met with a defensive parent about a discipline issue and was more prepared to handle the intricacies of the difficult situation because of my knowledge of the confrontation model. I had learned not to be defensive, nor did I take the parent's frustrations personally. I worked hard to find common ground with the parent, while explaining the school's position. I was able to stand my ground about a consequence his child had earned for a bad choice. The parent tried valiantly to defend the young man's indiscretion. I was able to hold the parent "as able", meaning, as capable of handling the consequences without backing down, and I did so in a way that moved the relationship forward. I noticed I didn't get upset that the parent didn't agree with the outcome of the situation. The difference for me was that I felt it was truly allright to feel like the only win-win wasn't just having the parent support me and my viewpoint. That wasn't realistic. Yet I didn't worry about it because I had honestly shared my perspective and listened to the parent openly.

Stephen Covey's early work on "seeking to understand first before being understood" played a part in this example as well. I needed to first completely understand the parent's point of view before I could get him to hear and consider my perspective. I had to listen carefully without being too quick to form a response. Often, more than anything, angry parents want to be heard. When the parent knew I had heard his viewpoint, his defenses diminished, and we were able to reach a solution.


As I look back at gaining the skill to have the conversations that used to keep me up at night, I had the following realizations.


As principals we must be willing to empathize and "witness the struggle" of the difficult parent, or the frustrated and frazzled teacher. The empathy we show can go a long way in helping resolve conflicts.

A logical, clear confrontation model takes the emotional charge out of confronting a tough issue. It allows you to speak to the heart of the issue with clarity, without attack. Also key elements are empathy and a sincere desire to understand the other person's perspective.

We've heard it said before - you can't change others - you can only change yourself. Therefore, our responses to challenging situations are critical and significantly contribute to the outcomes. As I am often reminded when dealing with combative parents, managing a difficult person first means managing myself.

In conflict, perspective is everything, and others are more likely to be open to our viewpoint if we are willing to be present, to listen and try to understand their viewpoint.

I've learned to be more bold and direct when confronting issues. Before I might have hemmed and hawed about the issue as I tried to resolve whatever conflict landed in my lap. Now I'm more prepared to address difficult issues with confidence, honesty, and diplomacy.

I am grateful to have grown in my ability to handle conflict. Although we tend to think of conflict in negative terms, many positive things come from handling conflict effectively such as change, personal growth, solutions, and the opportunity to solve problems more effectively. Conflict is a normal, inevitable part of our everyday lives, and effective administrators need to learn how to deal with conflict skillfully.


In both the parent and staff member example above, I learned how valuable it is to engage the people who own the knowledge about the issue under discussion. Both parties were able to contribute to the solution, which made it easier and more satisfying for all involved.

Administrators are often required to make unpopular decisions. One question I continue to ask myself as I work with students, staff, and parents is "How can we move forward from here given this new understanding?"

All confrontation is a search for the truth. We all own a piece of the truth, so as administrators it's up to us to skillfully find out what is really going on.


I am grateful that I've learned the importance of being conscious during the gradually. By that I reference what Susan Scott says in her work - "Our careers, our schools, our relationships, and our very lives succeed or fail, gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time." There is a lot of gradually built in there.

I have become more intentional about what I strive to accomplish on a daily basis. Being aware of our relationships and results is important. Sometimes we need to ask what we can do differently to keep from losing students and staff gradually, before a negative suddenly blindsides us.

To really understand in the moment that "the conversation IS the relationship" shifts everything. This sounds simple, and is something we all know on one level. I find myself thinking about that a lot more with regards to what I do as a campus principal to cultivate more positive relationships with my staff daily. And I know this happens gradually, one conversation at a time.

As Michael Fullan and others have reminded us, "Relationships drive everything we do," and as my teachers and I were reminded during our work with Fierce, "The most valuable currency we have is relationships." If we don't connect with peoples' hearts as well as their heads, it's not likely we'll move forward collectively.

Being an administrator is a high calling, and while many obstacles lie in the way of our success, and while we would have no trouble enumerating the many problems we face, we are not in the business of predicting rain, but of building arks.

I believe we either build a bridge or a wall with every person we meet. What is your style when handling conflicts? Like you, I'm out to build bridges, and having the courage and skills to have Fierce conversations helps me build bridges by being a more effective instructional leader.

-Bryan McLain