Sunday, 3 June 2012

From Hard Talks to Courageous Conversations

As the year winds down educational leaders will assess the year that's been, and plan for the year to come. Many conversations need to happen. There will be conversations around district targets, school goals, budgets, professional growth and institutional change. Where progress has been made, the conversations can be easy, even celebratory. Where things have not gone so well, or where change is required, the conversations will be hard. 

Hard conversations can be challenging, to say the least. Few people enjoy being the bearer of bad news. Many people are uncomfortable communicating information that is likely to generate conflict, anger, resistance or any other negative response. Administrators sometimes put off difficult exchanges with staff as they fear the talk might make things worse. They hope problems will resolve themselves without intervention; an unlikely option at best. Sooner or later it must be recognized that putting off difficult conversations helps no one. Not having these conversations can even be more damaging than any hurt feelings or negative response, for by putting off the conversation, one is putting off any remediation and bad situations  can fester or get worse.

In 2009/2010 the Ontario Ministry of Education recognized having the hard conversations as one of the five core leadership capacities the ministry wanted to develop in all its educational leaders.  Characterizing such communications as "Courageous Conversations" Ontario sought to temper their perceived unpleasantness by emphasizing their importance and relative value if done well. In an article entitled Ideas Into Action, "The Case For Courageous Conversations" the ministry acknowledged and affirmed that such conversations were not easy but still vitally important. The article includes the statement:

If we are leading for improvement, we are inevitably leading for
change and can expect some degree of discomfort, disagreement
or resistance along the way – whether on the level of the individual,
or the organization. Change often challenges our deeply-held beliefs,
and as John Kenneth Galbraith famously said, “Faced with the choice
between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to
do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof”. Open, authentic,
truthful dialogue, in an atmosphere of trust and respect, is the key
ingredient that makes meaningful change possible.

Further on, the document lists 18 reasons why administrators sometimes avoid courageous conversations. The list includes many familiar excuses ranging from "I want people to like and respect me" to "If I just wait for the right moment" all the way to "I just don't have the energy today". Reading the complete list gives all of us ample opportunities to uncomfortably recognize ourselves from some situation or another.

If the conversations must be held, the next question is how to do them well and effectively. Effective administrators need to be well practiced in the soft skills of clear and honest communication. Discretion, tact and diplomacy help as well. Jill Eisner of Poynter.Org  suggests that PFF - Preparation, focus and followup, are essential. In getting ready for a conversation come fully prepared with facts and context. Don't lose focus or be side tracked by the distractions or protests of others, and follow up in order to document and benchmark the key points.

Whether characterized as courageous, or just plain hard conversations that deal with difficult or contentious matters are part of an educational leader's job. Hoping and waiting usually won't make issues go away. Taking on the challenges in an appropriate, honest and diplomatic manner can help take the sting out of a problematic issue and clear the way for future progress and more pleasant conversations in the future.

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