* Crucial Conversations #7: restart

checkered_flagWhew!  The rubber meets the road in Chapter 8: Explore Other’s Paths.  This chapter is a map of how to open/ restart dialog with someone when they have resorted to “silence or violence.”   Conversations shut down when someone does not feel safe.  That leads to default methods of interacting under stress, not necessarily effective ones.  The authors continue to focus on humility, sincerity, and positive expectations.  And patience.

It is much easier for me to apply this in teaching students than in my personal or professional life.  I think that’s because I have a large comfort zone with special needs kids, so I am not dismayed when they strike out or withdraw.  If my husband ever did that, I would react quite differently!  (He’s pretty amazing and could have written crucial conversations.)

Kids who have been identified as autistic or having emotional disorders can benefit greatly from conversations with teachers who do not take offense, who are willing to explore the students’ perspectives, and can help them safely review what they actually heard or saw.  Primarily, these students need to know it’s safe to share their feelings, no matter how upset they are.  I remember a kid talking about bombing the school.  I could tell that he wanted to scare me, but I encouraged him to talk and draw what he was feeling.  After creating a number of violent pictures, he asked me what it would take to get expelled from school.  I asked him why he wanted to get expelled and the whole story poured out.  He had been violent at home, terrified a younger sibling, and ended up living with an aunt.  His goal was to get back to his mom.  If he acted crazy in this new school, he hoped to be sent back.  Eventually he was reunited with his mom, although he obviously still had a lot of anger and jealousy issues to be resolved.

Another student told me about his plan to “get even” with two classmates.  At first, he was embarrassed to talk openly about his violent feelings.  When I simply listened (ignoring my regular schedule and growling tummy), he ended up describing a troubling “triangle” in which he felt left out.  His perspective was that of a victim, denied HIS special twosome by a new kid in the class.  It took many conversations to eventually move him from that role to exploring new relationships.  It was a bumpy path.  I reminded myself (and him) that it takes time to work out relationships.  I could not force any solution; instead, he had to see that there were alternatives to the bleak picture he had painted.  Again, his relational difficulties persisted, but he did not resort to violence because he could safely talk about his problem.

In contrast to my behavior with students, I recall fleeing a room just so I could hold my tongue before I did irreparable damage to a relationship.  Well, duh.

* Crucial Conversations #6: speaking persuasively, not abrasively

solderingHow to speak persuasively, not abrasively.  This is another challenging chapter, partly because I am so passionate about various issues but haven’t learned how to engage in safe dialog with others.  The authors encourage passion but within certain boundaries.  My takeaway message from chapter six is to encourage others to share their opinions; the more vigorously I share mine, the more vigorously I should ask others to share.   This is pretty much the opposite of my typical approach to many collegial conversations about kids.  I assume I know it all.  I assume my opinions will not change.  I assume no one has a better grasp of the situation.  I think I have “gotten away” with this unproductive stance because I usually have allies with the same position.  And of course, I am not crusading 24/7.  But I remember many meetings where I have been convinced that my opinion was TRUTH and wasn’t open to other viewpoints.

The strategies outlined in this chapter are simple yet profound.  The authors suggest that I spend time preparing my thoughts before engaging in a crucial conversation.  They use a Goldilocks analogy: my views shouldn’t be too hard or too soft.  I especially appreciate the section entitled “How Do We Change?”  Their answer?  Back off.  Tone down.  That makes sense because I don’t like being clobbered by others, either.  Their advice has cycled back to an earlier point: look out for those crucial conversations when people (including myself) aren’t safe.

I will need to practice these skills, but at least I am looking in the right direction.

What about you?  Are you persuasive or abrasive?

* Stop and count?

stop-565609_640Stop 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?

* Crucial Conversations #5: Master my story

danger 2Master 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!

* Crucial Conversations #4: Make it safe

under constructionMake 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!

* Crucial Conversations #3: Learn to look

crucial conversationsLearn 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.”

* Crucial Conversations #2: Social first aid

crucial conversations“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.stress style

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?  

* Crucial Conversations #1: overview

crucial conversationsI have finally started reading Crucial Conversations!  Here’s what I have learned after three chapters:

1.  There’s hope for all of us.  Those of us who had disastrous role models for communication (me) can still learn to talk effectively with anyone.  I am already encouraged as I read through the illustrations and research studies.  As I have noted in reference to classroom environments, establishing a positive, encouraging emotional climate is truly important.

2.  My reading of brain-based teaching conforms to the authors’ contention that our brains “fail us” when we are engaged in conflict.  As our special needs students too frequently discover, when we are stressed, the fight-or-flight response has already kicked adrenaline into our systems, giving our muscles extra energy while reducing our ability to reason.  I laughed out loud when the authors describe the consequences of emotional distress, leaving us “with the same intellectual equipment available to a rhesus monkey.”  Yes, that’s an apt description of some of my crucial conversations.

3.  It IS important to speak up honestly and respectfully.  The second chapter is illustrated by a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.  I have often found myself championing unpopular causes.  And I have not always done that with grace and humility.

4.  The authors describe three key issues we must address in order to navigate the world of conflict without crushing anyone or simply shutting down.  The first one is something I actually learned years ago but never connected to crucial conversations:  I can only control myself.  That understanding has helped me become a more successful teacher, for it removes potential conflict, frustration, and determination to control kids’ behavior.  I can create an environment that makes better behavior more likely, but I cannot force students to make the right choice.  Second, I must focus on what I really want.  If I find myself angry, I need to ask what that behavior means and whether it is congruent with my goals.  Third, I must avoid what the authors call a Fool’s Choice, a belief that we must choose between two poor alternatives.

Here’s an example of a crucial conversation I missed, but which certainly revealed my heart.  I was a resource teacher at a school where the administration was strongly opposed to pull-out services for special needs kids.  I was told to work with these kids directly in their classroom, but they were so far behind their peers (and so easily distracted) that our small group work was not effective.  I ended up teaching in a small, filthy closet adjacent to the classroom, since the administration felt that students should not waste time walking to a resource room.  You can perhaps imagine my emotional reaction to this situation.  There were a number of legitimate reasons for my preference to work in my well-equipped classroom, including the fact that kids were walking to rooms all over the school for “regular” small group instruction.  But ultimately I saw that I was most upset about the way I was being treated, not the way students could potentially lose out.  I worked diligently to make sure the students did not lose out, and in the process discovered some cool strategies to make that unpleasant closet an effective teaching space.  I also saw that I was no longer in an environment I could support, so in conjunction with other issues, I retired from full-time teaching.  I wish I had read Crucial Conversations back then; perhaps I could have participated in an effective crucial conversation about the conflict between my philosophy of special education and that of the administration.