Stop and count to 10. I remember an era of social skills instruction that focused on counting to help kids control their temper and modulate their responses to conflict. I ditched that strategy because it never worked. No one ever counted, and if they had, would they have been better off? After reading Crucial Conversations (through chapter six), I’ve been thinking about the best ways to help kids step outside a crucial conversation and adjust their responses.
The first steps described in Crucial Conversations are already a part of my social skills instruction. Identifying potential conflicts and working towards a mutually satisfactory outcome are not too difficult for most kids. In fact, those skills form the basis for most of my role-playing and social skills narratives. But the “Learn to Look” aspect (chapter 4) is exponentially more challenging. Can kids learn to step back and analyze their feelings when they feel unsafe? Can they do that for others as well? And having noticed that other kids feel unsafe, will they avoid responding in kind? I think so. In fact, many kids already have some of these skills because their parents and teachers model them effectively.
What if teachers routinely modeled these skills? Imagine I am teaching a small reading group. I ask a student to share their personal connection to the text. They respond by saying, “This was so boring! Why did we have to read it?” I can use think-aloud as a strategy for modeling the Crucial Conversations-type response. My key word for potentially difficult conversations has been safety. I nod and say, “I need to step back a moment and think about whether this discussion is safe for all of us. What do I really want to happen here? Should I get grumpy or can I find out more about what you mean? I believe that you really want to do your best in reading, so I need to find out what your strong feelings are all about. I’ve already told everyone that I want discussions to be safe for all of us.” I would then ask my student, “Can you tell us more about what you mean? I want to keep this discussion safe for all of us.” This can’t be the kids’ first exposure to this strategy, but it will reinforce previous structured instruction on keeping discussions and interactions safe.
I like it. What about you?
Master My Stories. This is the most complex chapter in Crucial Conversations to date. The authors describe a “path” that leads to healthy actions, which requires that I first accurately describe my actions and the emotions underlying those actions. After that, I must identify the “story” I am telling myself to justify those feelings, then analyze what I actually saw and heard.
Here’s an example from my life. As a resource teacher, I was serving a student who was identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder by a psychiatrist. He had also experienced considerable psychological distress in his past, having been abandoned by his parents and subsequently adopted by his grandparents. From the outset of my interventions with him, I successfully used strategies which are considered best practices for ASD kids. He did relatively well for his first several years of school, but experienced gradually increasing anxiety related to relationships with others. About this time, he was reevaluated and as a school-based committee, we had to decide on an appropriate label. I became angry and defensive when it was suggested that he receive a label based on emotional disabilities instead of autism. I heard secondhand that my principal was furious with me for arguing with the school psychologist in front of his family.
I had fallen into a trap described by the authors of Crucial Conversations. I thought I felt angry; I did react defensively. If I had been able to more accurately define my feelings, I would have seen fear and hurt. Why? I was telling myself a story something like this: “My work with this student is considered unsound. My judgment is being unfairly criticized and a major assessment administered to this kid is just plain wrong.” What evidence did I have to support my story? Well, my work with him was praised and suggested that I had been on the right track. The “gold standard” of ASD identification did not identify this student as autistic. He did have a history of serious emotional problems. The path I chose did not lead to any healthy conversations! But I apologized to the school psychologist, who responded graciously. We restarted our conversations and ended up with a primary label of Autism and a secondary label of Emotional Disturbance. Live and learn!
Make it safe. This chapter in Crucial Conversations was not a quick read. I found myself rereading much of it and although I can summarize the chapter, making a conversation “safe” is not for wimps. The authors’ basic premise is that conversations are derailed when the participants don’t feel safe. If I feel disrespected or ignored, I am not likely to persist in an effective conversation. Instead, I will resort to “silence or violence.” OK, I can see that. So I am advised to step out of the conversation (looking at motives, reactions, emotions) and follow some helpful tips for re-establishing a safe conversation.
I found one point especially interesting and appealing: being authentic. It’s possible to talk about sensitive issues and still remain honest. I have floundered in this area. As a supervisor, I have wanted to withdraw my statement or evaluation, even if it was true. In Crucial Conversations, you learn to express yourself honestly but keep the dialog going by making it safe for all concerned. That means being aware of how my initial (honest) comment felt to the person hearing it. If they felt threatened, I must tell them what I DO NOT want (“I don’t want you to think that I’m dissatisfied with your effectiveness in administering a student’s behavior contract.”) and what I DO want (“I do want you to arrive at school on time.”)
Another aspect of being authentic relates to mutual purpose and respect. The authors state that mutual respect is a condition of entering an effective dialog with others and mutual purpose enables the conversation to move forward. They suggest that you find/invent a mutual purpose if one is not readily apparent. In the case of my obvious disconnect with an administrator, I could have agreed that we both wanted the students in school to succeed. Our strategies on achieving that success differed significantly, but had we taken time to talk about sensitive issues, I think we could have found some mutually acceptable solutions. In hindsight, I can see that neither of us felt safe, so those conversations did not occur. I haven’t read past chapter five, but it also seems that some conversations simply won’t take place when the person in charge makes unilateral decisions. And I do respect a supervisor’s right to do that.
I admire the authors’ emphasis upon honesty. Apologies must be genuine. Strategies for safe conversations are not a means to an end. Mutual respect and purpose must be genuine, not manipulative. I’m still encouraged by what I’ve read and given the way life is, I should have plenty of opportunities to practice!
Learn to Look. That’s chapter four in Crucial Conversations. Look at my reactions, look at others’ reactions, and check for signs that we are moving towards “silence” or “violence.”
Why am I so much better at this with kids but not my colleagues? I may miss kids’ signals at times, but overall, I am attuned to their mood, their body signals, their language, and their needs. Other teachers and adminstrators? My crucial conversations are best when I’m advocating for kids’ needs (at least I’m not being silent) but then I tend to go overboard and have to apologize for not listening, for interrupting, for saying the same thing over and over to COMPEL people to do what I think is best. Arrgh.
As a teacher, I’ve been in perpetual training mode with kids, working to be effective. If I want to be a successful teacher, I must understand my students and react in helpful ways. I must make the environment safe so they can move forward. I allow them to share their grumpiness and sarcasm without taking offense. I allow them to be candid; in fact, I establish early on that I need them to be honest. There are boundaries, but I permit a wide range of behaviors as they move towards improved self-understanding and improved self-control. Another factor in my communication weaknesses with colleagues has been my isolation from the mainstream of education. For much of my career, self-contained classrooms were out of sight and out of mind. So were their teachers. Kids from across the school districts would leave their “home schools” and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The Professional Learning Community (PLC) model was nonexistent. I never learned from my mistakes in crucial conversations.
With colleagues, I am often defensive, fearful of criticism, and approval-seeking. I haven’t moved very far from my early dysfunctional relationships. As an abused kid, I said I would never treat children the way I was treated. I believe Crucial Conversations will help me bring my collegial relationships into alignment with that childhood goal. I had no voice and no safety in my childhood (not an exaggeration). It is time for me to move to the next chapter of the book and of my life: “Make It Safe.”
It’s the small things for which I am most grateful. Like those tiny increments in millimeters that eventually lead to a young man six feet tall, kids must often make hundreds of small steps in their path towards mastery. One student required almost 30 trials per task in order to achieve a goal. Those steps seem can inconsequential or even frustrating at times. It takes extra teacher effort to remain upbeat and encouraging when the pace is sluggish. I draw pictures for kids to show them that their mountain top is within reach. I tell their parents that we will see it happen. Based on experience, I know the labor is not in vain. So I smile and guide and encourage. And then it happens! That mountain-top moment! The kids usually know when that moment occurs. What does it look like? One struggling student raised his hands like an Olympian and called out, “If anyone needs help with their reading, ask me!” Another student hugged me. Yet another student stopped speaking to me in the hallway; my presence reminded him that he had once been unable to read. I have to tell the occasional student that we have arrived. I shared reading test results with a girl who was astonished. “I can read on grade level?” she asked incredulously. Yes, I am grateful for every step.
Is blogging rocket science? Sometimes it feels that way, but it’s actually an organizational challenge. I changed a category name without realizing that all the entries under that previous name would go SPLAT across the page, untethered and unmanageable. Since I have over 200 posts, adjusting the menu now takes so much time that Google Chrome is constantly begging to kill the pages. I do empathize, since I want to kill the lengthy mess myself.
Then there’s the issue of replies. My chalkboard theme buries replies below “see” level. As the writer, I can easily read all comments, but there’s little chance of a dialog between readers. I probably need to fiddle with widgets (listen closely for the screeching sounds).
Finally, I am unable to save this post. When I click on the save button, I get this error message:
What method is allowed? Maybe HAL (of Space Odyssey fame) is now handling my blog. In which case, this IS rocket science and my life support is being compromised. Now I can’t publish this post either.
If it does eventually appear, you’ll know that Space Odyssey has a revised, happier ending.
If you’ve been following the struggles of Tony, a twice exceptional student, you know that he is gifted and dyslexic. He makes twice the effort at school, and unfortunately, his parents also make twice the effort to help his teachers understand their child’s struggles. If Tony were less compliant and eager to please, he would already have the full attention of all involved. If he were not so adept at masking his disability, his teachers might also better understand the tremendous effort he makes each day. For example, as we completed his writing survey, Tony admitted that he expends considerable effort working around his spelling weaknesses. He will try to think of easily-spelled synonyms for words he wants to use but can’t spell. Given his strong vocabulary, this “work around” is within his reach, but that process takes a toll. Not only does he exhaust mental energy and working memory in this process, but he must confront strong feelings of stupidity (“I can’t spell like other kids”) and panic (“I won’t finish on time”). All the while, he is trying to appear on task, trying not to alert his teachers or peers to this laborious process. Here’s a review of his perspective on writing (described in more detail in post on writing graphs).
See all that red? That spells d-i-s-t-r-e-s-s.
Tony’s parents are quite remarkable advocates for him, as you probably noted in their email to his teacher. With their permission, I am copying an excellent document they created to help Tony’s teachers understand factors that mask his struggles.
I look forward to the day when we have effectively conveyed these concerns to his classroom teachers, improving the quality of life for Tony and his family (hence my desire to improve my skills in Crucial Conversations). I’ll keep you posted!
“Social first aid.” That sounds like something I could use. In Chapter Four of Crucial Conversations, the authors deal with three conversation killers: being unaware that a crucial conversation is occurring, misreading or being oblivious to how others feel, and being similarly oblivious to your own responses to stress. They describe unhealthy responses to crucial conversations in two categories: “silence” and “violence.” Silence is avoidance and withdrawal, while violence is verbally attacking, controlling, or belittling. I wish they could have selected a less violent word for the latter category, but I guess they were going for rhyme.
I took a brief online assessment to determine how I respond under the harshest conditions I’ve faced at work with supervisors. Uh-oh.
The book has a lengthier assessment which better explains the choices I make in crucial conversations. Basically, I choose one of three defaults: avoidance (I delay answering emails which might entangle me in difficult issues), masking my true feelings (“softening” my remarks in an apologetic or falsely flattering manner), and attempting to control others (what I think is right and I will exaggerate to prove my point). Based upon their assessment, the authors suggest which chapters are most helpful for improving my ability to talk to others when the stakes are high. I think I need to read and study all of it (duh), because I certainly want to become more effective in this realm.
The good news is that I am more effective in listening and participating in student-related issues than personal ones. I guess that’s good news. I have blown crucial conversations in all areas, though, so I am ready to learn these new skills. It’s never too late!
If you want to take the assessment yourself, click on this link and scroll down: Style Under Stress.
Want to share your results?