Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

-by Jack M. Jose

Years ago, after the last day of school, I was rushing to clean up my room and finishing items on my check-out sheet. I was trying diligently to accomplish the work that stood between me and my hard-earned summer. I was hot and tired, it felt like I had been battling my students for the last two weeks of school. I was ready to be finished.

Jerry walked into the room with a friend of his I had seen a couple of times. Jerry and I had battled all year. He seemed impervious to encouragement, scolding, poor grades, phone calls home, conferences, and other tactics I could manage in the early stages of my teaching career. He insisted on not doing much work outside of the classroom, and seemed satisfied with the mix of Ds and Fs on his report card.

“I’m out, Mr. Jose. I’m gone and you ain’t gonna see me again, I’m done with this place.” He waived a withdrawal paper in my direction. “Bye.”

In my frustration, and exhaustion, I dismissed him. “Well, go on then. What’s the difference, you weren’t doing much work anyway.”

His entire disposition changed, and his next words were spoken with an edge of hurt and anger. “Alright, well I see how it is. Fine then.” He started for the door, but turned around to deliver the final words, “And fuck you.” He gestured to his friend who followed him into the emptying hallways and out the front door of the building.

Now, this was not exactly a difficult conversation, in the sense of a conversation where an important message had to be delivered and understood. This was a simple, short impromptu exchange between a teacher and a student. The way that I screwed the conversation up is apparent in the re-telling, but very human in the moment. Here is what I missed, upon reflection: a student who I had struggled with all year, in whom I had invested hours of calls, meetings, papers getting corrected, and conversations at his desk and in the hallway, was looking forward to leaving the school where he struggled. Before he left, however, he stopped in to see me. I believed at first that he had shown up to tell me off, and so I sort of beat him to the punch. My response to him was, essentially, “Good riddance.” Only after time could I see that he was probably more eager to leave the school and be done than I was, and yet he went out of his way, up to my second floor classroom, to visit me. I see now that there is another, better interpretation of his visit. This young man, who struggled with school, and who had finished his last day and was in fact leaving the school for good, stuck around at the end of the day to come see me and to tell me he was leaving. It is apparent to me that quite possibly he appreciated my effort, and felt that we had forged a connection. I was worth sticking around for, on the last day of school.

Periodically, it becomes clear that a particular topic for the blog, or a particular skill or habit we practice at Gamble Montessori, was derived almost entirely from one particular book, (Or, as in the post “Giving an A”, one particular chapter of a book.) This post is similar. However, instead of being a memory of a book that helped in the past, this book arises both because it made an impact AND because it still has some wisdom to impart. That book is Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Stone, Douglas; Patton, Bruce, and Heen, Sheila, 1999.)

One of my cousins confessed to me that he really didn’t ever enjoy coming to church, so he only came a couple times a year. We had just attended a holiday ceremony with our extended family and were walking out of the nave. He marveled aloud at how each time “the sermon seems to be talking to me, about me.” He stopped the act of loosening his tie and made eye contact with me. “It’s spooky. If I didn’t know better, I’d think there was something to this church thing.”

That is how I feel about Difficult Conversations. It is downright discouraging to note that almost every word in the introduction about the need for this book – especially the unwillingness of people to have the hard conversations necessary to sustain their most vital relationships – seems to fit my ongoing situation, and me personally. It’s spooky.

DaringGreatly-EngagedFeedback-8x10
In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown discusses the power of vulnerability – revealing your mistakes or flaws to make it okay for other people to show theirs. Vulnerability, paired with contribution, can be a pathway to powerful and life-altering conversations.

The work of teachers and administrators is fraught with difficult conversations, especially this time of the year. The student whose 4th quarter push fell short, the parent frustrated with a disciplinary action taken late in the year, questions about the evaluation of adults in the building, from paraprofessionals to the principal, all bring challenges to the professional’s judgment and integrity.

One reassurance I take from this book is the authors’ constant reminder that avoiding hard conversations is a common human coping strategy. Our jobs are hard, life is complicated, and things will eventually sort themselves out. So we all avoid.

Of course, I can’t detail most of the hard conversations I have, or the ones I haven’t had. Their intensity and their private nature is what makes them so hard to have, and makes them unfit for sharing here.

In outline, Difficult Conversations examines the ways that each hard discussion is like the others. While acknowledging that there are many different kinds of important hard conversations, each of those conversations have three definable conversations happening within them.

The “What Happened?” Conversation – this occurs when something important goes wrong, due to miscommunication or other factors, and the participants cannot discuss the issues below the surface that created the conflict. Some teachers’ relationships are so strained from past experiences that when they need to work together to accomplish a goal, they struggle to address each other. Even when something insignificant happens, they fail to communicate effectively, and cannot address the issue, instead retreating into blame, which solves nothing.

The Feelings Conversation – in conflict, especially in the professional world, we attempt to eliminate feelings to stay focused on “business.” However, these conversations are hard because they deal primarily with feelings, and failing to acknowledge and address them keeps the conflict alive even if the current issue seems resolved. Krista reminds me of this all the time. Often this is inseparable from the “What Happened” conversation, except that when the feelings, especially of disrespect, go unaddressed, the “What Happened” conversation can never get fully resolved.

The Identity Conversation – in every exchange, each individual is conscious of what their stance and the outcome reveal about them, the speaker. These conversations are often a challenge not because of their importance to the company or the relationship, but because they force us to confront and perhaps question a deeply held belief about ourselves. For instance, a teacher might not want to speak with me about their interaction with a student that led to a conflict with the student. A teacher who sees herself as a loving advocate for students might not want to face the suggestion that she mishandled the interaction with a student, or to learn that there is something to do to repair the relationship.

In these conversations, we consistently take a limited amount of knowledge, that portion derived from our own perspective and experience, and we draw all of our conclusions from that incomplete starting point. We also make judgments about the other person based on our past experience with them.

Our human tendency to misunderstand another’s actions, what is described in the book as the “first mistake” in judging others’ intentions, caused me to horribly bungle the interaction with Jerry on the last day of school. I believed I knew his intentions, and responded to that belief, rather than to his words. In doing so, I made a mistake that I can never repair. Fortunately, I can learn from my experiences, and not repeat the mistake. Well, not that PARTICULAR mistake!

His next words were spoken with an edge of hurt and anger. “Alright, well I see how it is. Fine then.” He started for the door, but turned around to deliver the final words, “And fuck you.”

Instead of having the “what happened” conversation at all, we both acted on emotions. I was reacting to my personal frustration and tiredness without regard to Jerry’s situation at all. Instead of addressing feelings, we left them below the surface of our words, sharp rocks just under the waters offshore. What if I had expressed just my feelings, “Jerry, I need to say that this news is so frustrating for me. I feel like I worked really hard with you this year, and that you are sort of throwing that away.” How differently would that exchange have gone? Finally, there is the identity conversation. I put Jerry in a place where he needed to show his friend he controlled the situation and that he did not need school. I put him there because in that moment, my view of myself as an effective teacher had been severely damaged.

Instead, I attacked. Stone, Patton, and Heen effectively address the common conversational misstep that always feels like an attack: the tendency to assign blame, typically to someone other than ourselves. This is not a type of conversation, it is a tendency to pre-litigate the situation in our heads, then have the whole conversation as if trying to prove that it was someone’s fault, rather than to determine the best way forward. As a teacher, it is a simple habit to assign blame to the student; as an administrator, to the teacher or student. This is a common cause of conflict between people in working relationships, especially between teachers and students. Perhaps you have seen a version of this conversation play out in your classroom: “You didn’t do the work correctly/completely.” “Well, you didn’t explain the assignment very clearly.” This creates conflict from the outset of the conversation, and is often resolved by the teacher “pulling rank,” and the unintended consequence is the student feeling like he is no longer in a cooperative environment, and is instead fighting against the assignment and the teacher.

Many of us chose teaching or education-related fields because we want to help others. I suspect this is why I commonly find others – and myself – making a special version of the blame mistake: blaming themselves. This can often lead to avoidance, meaning important conversations don’t happen at all.

Here is how that happens. A teacher fails to turn in an assignment, such as a printout of their grade distribution, at the end of the quarter. Instinctively, I think “that teacher usually does a really good job at handing things in on time, I must not have communicated very clearly.” Then I make a note for how to nudge them, perhaps by adding a friendly reminder in the bulletin, or mentioning it in the blog, hoping, perhaps in futility, that they will read it and amend their ways. I feel good because I gently reminded them, indirectly without blame or confrontation. Meanwhile, the teacher might remain blissfully unaware; either they have forgotten about the assignment, or they are too busy to complete it at this time (and probably too busy to closely review the bulletin or read the blog), or they thought they turned it in. In short, they are not benefiting from the lack of a conversation, and the work is not getting done.

That is the heart of these difficult conversations. In all of the places where the gears of the school are grinding instead of smoothly meshing, there is a challenging conversation to be had. In each, all three conversations – what happened, feelings, and identity – need to be acknowledged. The inclination to blame should be repressed.

Instead of blame, one should focus the conversation on “contribution” instead. Perhaps all of the aspects mentioned above are contributing factors – perhaps notification could have been clearer or more pervasive, and perhaps the teacher was very busy and deprioritized the important work of examining their quarterly grades. Focusing on contribution allows for the reality that inactions or mistakes often have multiple causes. Reality is messy. However, the work still needs to get done. In this case the hard conversation needs to be initiated by the person who recognizes the problem, and needs to be had promptly, preferably with neutral language. For instance, rather than addressing my concern passively through the bulletin, I might approach the teacher and say, “Good morning, my records indicate that you did not turn in your grade distribution at the end of this quarter.” This wording feels very different from “why didn’t you turn in …” which clearly (and perhaps inaccurately) assigns blame to the teacher. In this case, the teacher could identify the problem, and provide information. “That’s odd, I thought I sent it to you already. Did you see the email I sent entitled ‘Pesky B’s’? It seems like every class had a large percentage of B’s, which struck me as odd.”

Here is what I did:

  • I named the situation (you did not turn in your grade distribution)
  • I identified how it came to my attention (my records indicate)
  • I stripped blame from the statement while still naming the concern
  • I allowed for any possibility in the answer – seeking contribution, and allowing for the possibility that my records were flawed

Focusing on contribution allows me to have the conversation with the teacher without blaming, and without violating my “identity conversation” with myself – that I see myself as a fair and supportive teacher-leader, rather than a demanding principal. And in this case, the teacher was able to address the issue without blame, and point out that the work had been submitted in a format I was not expecting. Accountability was maintained, my opinion of the teacher was confirmed, and I did nothing to discount their professionalism.

Even as I recount successes and failures, it is clear that this book’s most powerful use is as a reference kept within arm’s length of your workstation, to be consulted whenever a hard conversation presents itself. If you are human, like me, this will often come in handy.