There’s an elephant in the room!
In this first blog for 2021, I’d like to introduce to you my great New Zealand colleague, Roz Miller. Roz is an experienced principal and leadership adviser, who was able to effectively show a group of beginning principals how to address on the hardest conversations of all to have: ‘the elephant in the room.’
Sitting down with six beginning principals for their regular PLG meeting, Roz Miller quietly placed a small, beautifully carved elephant in the middle of the table… and waited…
‘What’s this elephant about?’ mused one.
‘Oh, I know’ said another ‘It’s the elephant in the room – the things we don’t talk about or want to bring up.’
Roz agreed that indeed it was, highlighting from their Agenda: ‘Our main focus today is to look at the conversations that matter – important conversations that need to be addressed, those we struggle with and why we let them go without addressing them.’
The brainstorm that followed uncovered many reasons why we don’t address them, such as:
‘Well, you know how tough my school is – if a teacher ‘walks’ I might not get anyone to replace them.’
‘I don’t know how to retain everyone’s mana and address the issue in front of them.’
‘Pleasing people gets in the way – I don’t want to upset the relationship.’
‘I ask myself: Is it going to be worth it?’
As key themes emerged, leaders agreed a major one was not feeling confident about knowing how to have the conversations in a way that addressed the issue and maintained positive relationships.
Roz invited leaders to review Focus on four types of conversations from the perspective of those most difficult to address:
|1. Conversations focused on improving student learning
|2. Conversations focused on adult learning and teaching practice
|3. Conversations to move whole school priorities and work forward
|4. Conversations to address required growth
Dalton, Joan, 2016 Learning Talk: important conversations at work, p5 for details of these conversations.
NB Additionally you can access full details in this blog Important conversations - using foundational art of inquiry skills for success.
As principals reviewed the conversations, all agreed that Conversations to address required growth can be the hardest to deal with. Roz then shared an example from her work as a principal where this kind of conversation was called for:
I walked into a year 8 classroom during silent reading time to see most students – including the teacher – silently reading while five students were engaging in unsafe, disruptive behaviour. The teacher was seemingly unaware of what was happening.
I intervened enough to settle those students back with their books, and simply said to the teacher: ‘I need to see you in my office at the beginning of lunchtime. As I walked back to my office, I knew what I needed to do, and the five steps I would use.
Addressing an issue of concern: five steps
As Roz continued her story, leaders followed a visual of the five steps…
Prepare and plan well
I found the template with the practical process steps on it, spent 10 minutes scripting Step 2, had a quick practice, and I was ready. Here’s how I began…
Begin the conversation: say how you see things
Name the concern
Focus on evidence in context
Clarify importance: impact and consequences
Identify your contribution (if any)
Invite and listen to the other person’s perspective
‘Barbara, this issue is critical to fulfilling the duty of care we have to all students. Talk to me about what’s been happening…’
Open the conversation for mutual negotiation and resolution
As our conversation proceeded, I asked Barbara what she understood about her moral duty of care to be, what she had tried so far and might try - I was wanting to find out what she expected from her students during a time of silent reading.
We made a time to check in and follow up, which I did. Her team leader and I each spent more time in her classroom, supporting her over the next month in finding and using some pro-active and positive strategies that worked.
This practical example helped school leaders see how Roz included and handled each of the five steps, and then Roz used the same steps to role model with a principal a genuine issue he wanted to address. As a group, they unpacked what Roz DID do, and what she DIDN’T do, and shared instances where they might be able to use this process.
Reflections from Roz
Talking with Roz about the success of this session, I asked her to reflect on the value of using the ‘elephant in the room’ object to introduce the topic of important conversations:
Roz: I work with this group of leaders regularly, and I knew that there were some issues they were concerned about that were not being addressed or resolved. I think the elephant prompted them to think about conversations they weren’t having that they knew they needed to have. And maybe the physical object of the elephant was actually permission-giving to sharing why.
Once we uncovered those reasons, we then could address them with a process and a template that I have found hugely useful as a principal and in my leadership work with others.
Inquiring further, I asked Roz to reflect on the value of this kind of process:
Roz: The process gives you practical how-to’s and steps to use – without any structure this kind of conversation can take on a life of its own, and we don’t end up with what we want, which is improvement in a situation.
The process helps you to understand each other, to see commonalities in thinking and to unearth differences in perceptions and perspectives, which paves the way for working toward constructive agreement and resolution.
The leaders in our group could see its practical value and felt they would have had much more success with past important conversations had they used it. They could also see how essential non-judgment and art of inquiry skills are, and practice, to achieving success.
They now want to learn more, so they’ve gone away to further explore your book 5, Joan, Learning Talk: Important conversations at work.
Dalton, Joan 2016 Learning Talk: important conversations at work, p56