* 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.