Sharon Rendon, Coaching Coordinator
This article is the last in a series based on Jim Knight’s book, Better Conversations. The reading of this book has allowed me to think deeply and reflect on my beliefs and my practices that directly affect the effectiveness of my work. These strategies have been valuable to improve my relationships whether I am collaborating with a colleague, working with a teacher in a coaching relationship, working with teams of students, and yes even my family. The final two habits I want to highlight are redirecting toxic conversations and building trust.
This past month I had the opportunity to visit with some fellow teachers about formative assessment and the power of turning the learning over to students. As we were imagining this classroom culture where students were both given and giving feedback that moves learning forward, where they were owners of their own learning, and lastly where students were learning resources for one another, one teacher started with “Yeah, but my students can’t and won’t …” and had a long list of the things the students were unable of doing. He then started down the conversation path of “How can I teach all these ‘soft’ skills when they students are ‘tested’ on the content?” I could see where this conversation was going and it was not good. Jim Knight would refer to this as a “toxic conversation.”
Knight suggests the first step to redirect these conversations is to identify the topics that you believe should never be tolerated. Having these identified will allow you to be aware of topics that raise our emotions and push our buttons, and when these conversations arise we can redirect them. Then there are three strategies that help develop this habit of redirecting. First, establishing norms that are reinforced and encouraged over time is a big deterrent. In classrooms and collaborative work groups we can name topics that will not be allowed and if they come up, it is agreed to identify it and not allow the conversation to continue. Secondly, the use of responsive turns, a four step process – interrupt, name, correct, and divert – is a helpful tactic that redirects these conversations. One can kindly interrupt, name what is being discussed, correct the statement, and finally divert the conversation in a different direction. Lastly, it might be best to just stay silent, especially if our comments will not move us toward a better conversation. Each of these strategies can be used in multiple situations. Just imagine a classroom in which students were partners in redirecting toxic conversations, where collaborative teacher teams employed these strategies, or where a coach and teacher worked in partnership with few or no toxic conversations. I encourage you to give these strategies a try and move those toxic conversations toward better conversations.
Whether you work in a classroom as teacher or in a support role with teachers, you have the daunting task of building trust with your students and/or colleagues. Research has clearly indicated that working in collaborative communities makes us better educators. However, those learning communities and partnerships do not just happen; they take work and can begin with creating better conversations. And those begin with building trust.
Better conversations and relationships occur when the people involved trust each other. When our relationships and conversations are better, our work is more effective and fulfilling. Knight identifies five factors, character, reliability, competence, warmth, and stewardship, as the basis for the definition of trust. Character is the notion of knowing someone will not harm us. This factor is developed through honesty and transparency. The second factor of reliability is doing what you say you will do. It is matching our words and deeds. One might think of “under promise and over deliver” as a good rule for increasing reliability. Be careful to not take on too many tasks so you cannot be “relied” on to fulfill what you say you will do. Factor three is competence, or the idea that you have the knowledge, skills, and/or credibility to do your work and do it well. Warmth is a factor described as showing empathy through listening, sharing positive information, and being vulnerable. Finally the factor of stewardship is rooted in having a genuine focus on others. Many times the way we communicate, the way we give credit to others and just showing that we care can develop levels of trust with others.
Lastly, David Maister, Charles Green, and Robert Galford might best sum up trust in their book, The Trusted Advisor, with the simple fraction that describes the numerator as credibility, reliability, intimacy and the denominator as self-orientation. In this mathematical relationship the larger the numerator the larger the number or amount of trust. As the denominator increases the size of the number decreases and therefore symbolizing less trust. Knight would describe this as, “The more we are focused on ourselves, however the less people will trust us.” He goes on further to summarize this habit of trust building with the suggestion to consider Stephen R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, as a great guide to developing the habit of being more trustworthy.
As you wrap up the school year and begin to think about your summer plans for personal and professional learning, I would suggest picking up a copy of Jim Knight’s book, Better Conversations. This reading will spur you on to reflect upon your beliefs of others and give you strategies for increasing the ten defined habits to help make your conversations better and your work more effective and fulfilling. Happy Reading!