There’s a book called The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley. Kelley discusses the roles and strengths different people can bring to a group. One of these roles is the cross-pollinator. The cross-pollinator is that person who has had varied experiences in life and can bring a different perspective. I cannot say I am a cross-pollinator as teaching for the last eights years has been the only career I have had. But, I can say, I am oftentimes drawn to not only educational books, but business, psychology, history, sociology, health and other topics. I understand that we in the education field can learn from the experts in those fields, as they can learn from us.
In addition to Kelley’s book, I am also reading another “business” book entitled Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen. I think some teachers are turned off by business books because they see all the differences between the private and public sector. (Side note: The misguided education philosophy of Bill Gates might affect this as well). While I don’t think we in education should let the leaders of the business world dictate education policy, I do think we have a lot to learn from the business field. Difficult Conversations, as with most business books, does not apply to just business. A lot of times, it has to do with people, human nature and all our strengths and weaknesses. For it is understanding each other and ourselves that is likely one of the biggest factors to success.
I just started Difficult Conversations, but I’d like to do a little reflection on it. I plan to do this with all future books I read. With eight years of teaching experiences and three years of middle-level leadership experiences, I feel like I intellectually understand what needs to be done. For me, that is the easy part. The hard part is applying the strategies, approaches and philosophies given the complexities of humans. It is my hope that these reflections will help me go beyond understanding and lead to real change.
What I’ve read so far…
I love that the authors of Difficult Conversations simply and without judgment state that difficult conversations are avoided by all of us, sometimes on a daily basis. These conversations can be as complex as addressing a deep-rooted issue with a family member or as simple as sharing with your neighbor the fact that their dog keeps you up all night. The authors go on to say that it is not the actually conversation that we fear; it is the consequences. Will they misperceive your intentions? Will you hurt their feels or vice versa? Are you being too petty in complaining about a small issue and they will think less of you? Should you just be the bigger person and suck it up? Avoiding these issues only causes them to boil inside of you and leads to more pain than what you are avoiding.
As the authors say “There is no such thing as a diplomatic hand grenade.” Sometimes, you have to have those conversations, even when you know things will get heated. Do not avoid the heat, because dealing constructively with tough topics will likely strengthen the relationship in the end.
So, what makes difficult conversations so difficult? It’s the gap between what you’re really thinking and what you’re saying. This really hit home for me. It seems like my mind is always thinking in conversations, and not just on what is being said by the other speaker. It is understanding these other “inner conversations” that will make difficult conversations easier.
There are three things topics we are often thinking about when having a conversation: the “what happened” conversation, the feelings conversation and the identity conversation. Here is a brief explanation of these conversations:
1) “What happened” conversation: You know this conversation, the one that entails truth, intentions and blame. Both people in a conflict get caught up in being right, doubting the intentions of the other and laying blame, all of which is counterproductive.
2) The feelings conversation: As rational as we have the ability to be, we are human and have emotions. While it is prudent to not let your emotions get the best of you, it is also wise to address them in a mature manner.
3) Identity conversation: We all tend to worry, subconsciously at least, how a difficult conversation will affect our self-image and it is human nature to “protect” that, to a certain degree.
My reflections on how this relates to education…
Education has evolved into an arena where we can no longer shut our doors and do our own thing. Of course, this still goes on, but if we truly want what is best for our kids, we must learn to collaborate and have difficult conversations. You are seeing this already in some districts as they take part in professional learning communities, response to intervention, high-stakes testing, etc. What I have noticed is educators are great at expressing their concerns in the hallways or behind closed doors, but not so effective at expressing and solving these issues. In no way am I pointing my finger at teachers here. Principals have to create a safe, trusting and respectful environment so teachers feel comfortable having difficult conversations. And superintendents have to do the same for principals. Doing this, I understand, is harder than what it seems when you are dealing with humans and their complexities. This is where the book Difficult Conversations comes in. I think this would be a great book study and one that should be required. The acknowledgement of the facts stated in my above summary of the book is key. All of us deal with those issues, whether you’re a first-year teacher, a veteran teacher, a physical education teacher or principal. Understanding human behavior can avoid a lot of issues and open up the door to problem solving. We do a great job in education with learning new strategies to teach reading, learning new way to motivate kids, knowing how to prepare kids for the lovely state-mandated exams, but we are also good at avoiding the very thing that holds all humans back, lack of knowledge of human nature, something that affects us every second of the day. I think if we can expand our knowledge in this area, our students can only benefit form it. Part of me wants to reflect more, but I think I will leave it at that for now, since I am only on page 25 in the book! More reflections to come.