Sunday, April 27, 2014

Critical Conversations are part of the deal

Some call it a necessary evil, others just call it honesty.  Whatever or however you refer to it critical conversations happen each day in life (not just schools).  Below are challenges that I'm choosing to share to help everyone have the courage to engage in these pivotal discussions.

It was about a month ago when I had a conversation with a group of educators and I left extremely disappointed.  The four of us were discussing a transitional student and it was clear to me that the student had special needs and would require additional support.  Throughout the conversation I listened to other educators explain why they had not broached the subject with parents.  Simply put I felt the "buck" was being passed.

This conversation brought a few emotions.  First, I felt disappointment, I was upset because my mentality is and always will be that we are in this together.  We don't pass off issues...we deal with them.  We are the professionals and professionals must be willing to have critical conversations. Second, I felt sadness for other schools and educators.  I imagined other schools that now would have to talk to parents and bring up difficult truths.  This isn't easy, because sometimes parents don't want to hear it, or get so upset that they pull their child from the school.  It's sad.

To be candid, I don't relish confrontation or tough conversations.  I certainly don't go looking for them, but I'm willing to be honest and share my thoughts.  One major hurdle for me was my position or standing.  As a classroom teacher I had a very difficult time confronting my colleagues.  Repeatedly I would witness things that saddened me, but I was reluctant to do anything about it.  There was a time that I would make a point to NEVER go in the teachers lounge.  

Over time two things changed, experience and my position.

Experience can be a game changer.  When you come to peace with what is truly best for kids it becomes easier to engage in critical conversations.  It's unfortunate how many times the conversation will be twisted and turned and the focus becomes the individual and not what is best for kids.

Another struggle I often have is internal.  When I need to have a tough, honest conversation with someone I analyze how it will be received.  Will the individual grow from the conversation?  Will this person shut down and become defensive?  Is this the conversation I need to have for the best interest of my students and building?  Simply put, is this where I draw my line in the sand?

I'll be straightforward, I choose my tough conversations carefully.  Often times I will think, is this critical to our students?  That one question drives my decision making.  If it isn't critical then I begin to think about the building culture.  The reason I think about the culture is that a negative tone spreads much quicker than a positive tone.  It doesn't take long for people to become negative, yet it feels like forever to swing people to the positive side.

Over the years I have learned and continue to learn new strategies for dealing with critical conversations.  Below are my 2 cents on engaging in tough conversations.

First, make the conversation safe.  What this means is, don't engage someone in front of others.  Find a quiet place to have the talk.

Second, try hard to not be abrasive.  We are all human beings and criticism typically doesn't feel good. Be a human, empathize, but also be strong enough to get the point across.

Third, control your emotions.  This is vital.  If it is one thing I can assure you it is this, sometimes individuals feel that criticism is a personal attack and then they strike back.  Do not engage in personal attacks.  Stay cool, stay professional and try to refocus the conversation if it turns personal.

Fourth, treat the individual with respect.  It is important to go into a conversation with a plan.  My best advice is to be honest and human.  Don't lose sight of the goal.  Don't over think the situation, focus on what is best for students.

Fifth, your best friend can often be documentation.  Too often individuals dodge the tough talks because they believe they don't have enough supported facts.  Don't let this be your downfall. Document and reference moments of concern.

Sixth, this is not about winning and losing.  This should be about doing what is best for students and the school.  Anytime I fear a conversation I come back to one simple thought, "Is this helping or hurting our students?"  Sometimes that simple thought spurs me into action.

Seventh, when it comes to critical conversations you need to find inner strength and also inner peace. The strength to have the conversation, and the peace to move forward once it is over.

We have important roles, we work with kids and we help shape the future.  Day in and day out we teach students to stand up for themselves and do what is right.  Yet often times as adults we don't follow these same words.

This Week's Big Questions:  Are you willing to engage in the tough conversations with colleagues or parents? Have you ever felt disappointed in someone that you knew was unwilling to have the tough talks?

Check out the Movie Clip 42 at the bottom for a classic crucial conversation.
Is there anything you would add or change to this?  I'd love to get feedback from all people.  Share your take on crucial conversations.


Monday, April 28th:  1pm SAU tutor Meeting with Deb Scripter
Monday, April 28th:  1pm 1:1 Tech Meeting
Monday, April 28th:  4-5pm Minecraft Club/Lego Club
Tuesday, April 29th:  9:30 Admin Meeting
Tuesday, April 29th:  Minecraft Club/Lego Club 4-5pm
Tuesday, April 29th:  Tech N' Taco Night 6pm - 7:15pm
Wednesday, April 30th:  9am Assembly with all grades (Musical with Mrs. Fitz)
Wednesday, April 30th:  3pm - 4pm String team/Minecraft Club
Thursday, May 1st:  Fire drill in the AM
Thursday, May 1st:  Lego Club/Boy & Girl Quest 4-5pm
Thursday, May 1st:  7pm Musical for grades 1, 3, 5
Thursday, May 1st:  Top Teacher Award at Ella Sharp Park
Friday, May 2nd:  Grades K, 1 and 2 StoryFest

Articles Worth Reading:

How Staying Uncomfortable is the Key to Success +Patrick Larkin @patrickmlarkin

What's This, "Connected Teaching, Learning & Leadership" all about? +Joe Mazza @Joe_Mazza

Using Metaphors to describe your school +Jennifer Hogan @Jennifer_Hogan

2 Student Beliefs That Can Change Everything +Terry Heick  @TeachThought

Scores are in +Todd Nesloney @TechNinjaTodd

What innovation looks like in an Elementary School +A.J. Juliani @ajjuliani

50 Apps that clarify 50 new ways to learn +TeachThought @TeachThought

Now What?  +Tony Sinanis @TonySinanis

Simple Yet Effective +Eric Sheninger @NMHS_Principal

5 Creative Resumes That Did The Job (and 5 keys to build your own)  @YouTernMark

6 Easy to Steal Rituals of Extremely Successful People +Marc Chernoff @marcandangel

My New Favorite Race @ShutUpRun

Videos Worth Watching:

Importance of a Good Nights Sleep (4 min) +TheEllenShow

This clip always cracks me up...but it also gets me in trouble.

Are you willing to stand up for what is right? Fantastic clip from the Movie 42! (1 min)

Interesting and compelling movie (2 min)


  1. Ahhhh, I have a tough convo coming tomorrow and I appreciate your honesty and opinion on this, Ben! I especially like the sixth reminder that it is definitely not about winning or truly is about being better for students.

  2. I'll be thinking about you Jenny. This time of year the critical conversations seem to occur more often. I'm glad you found the post to be helpful. I know you're doing what's best for kids...and that is so important. Be the advocate!
    Be The Change...


  3. Thanks for reminding us of the importance of these conversations. I have to engage in some this week. I needed the peace of mind this post provided.

    1. Carol,

      I'm glad you found this helpful. Anytime I share one of my main goals is to "keep it real". What I hope you'll find is that this topic is real for all of us. We all need to come to grips with how to engage in the conversations and how to move forward once they are over.

      I hope you are able to stay student-centered and honest throughout. I'll be thinking of you and many others this week and beyond.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and provide feedback, I appreciate it.

  4. Another great post, Ben. Grace under pressure. You're a terrific model of that.

  5. Ben,

    Good stuff, my friend. It's always easy for people to pass the buck. Can you live with yourself or can others live with themselves if we don't have the much needed critical conversation. We have all probably, at one time, missed the opportunity to have one of these conversations and felt terrible about it. It teaches us a lesson that we can't miss anymore for the student's sake. I really like your approach to these conversations and serve as great reminders. Thanks for putting out these great posts each week.

  6. Ben,
    I greatly appreciate this post. This is something that I need to work on, but you nailed it when you said you make decisions based on what's best for kids. If we're being honest, how can anyone really argue with that? They may disagree with us, or not like what we have to say, but how could they possibly feel we have been unjust? I would hope that the folks that work with my own two children would make decisions based on what is best for them and not convenient or easy. Thank you again for being my long distance mentor.

  7. All I'll say is for far too long my basic life choices were based on Seinfeld and Friends scenes. The one you've chosen has always been one of my favorites. "Because it's dinnertime..." Love that! Another great one is when Kramer drives the bus after knocking out the mugger and claims "OHH, I'm Batman!"
    Also, your statements on tough conversations really hit home as there are some tough talks coming up in my family and maybe now I'll be more prepared.

  8. Ben,
    This is outstanding with many practical and useful tips. Thanks for sharing and as I always I continue to learn from you. I think you will like my latest, which coincides with your theme

    1. Appreciate the support Cory! I enjoyed jumping into the #atplc chat the other night as well. Keep it up...remember, Be The Change You Want To See In The World!"