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Research School Network: It’s Good to Talk ELE Tara Mcvey discusses the art of difficult conversations


It’s Good to Talk

ELE Tara Mcvey discusses the art of difficult conversations

by Durrington Research School
on the

In our school, we often talk about the power of community and about the need for students to feel like they belong. We are working to build a school where the students feel part of something bigger than themselves. And the same is true of staff. I still feel a thrill when a staff member uses the school hashtag on Twitter or at the end of a celebratory email signalling that they belong.

Self determination theory suggests that all humans, including teachers, have three basic psychological needs: we need to feel we are becoming more effective and that we are getting better; we need to feel we have autonomy in the sense that we are in control of our own actions; and we need relatedness in that we know we are valued and that we belong. And, in schools like ours, I hope that we are on a collective journey to getting better, where we know we are in it together.

But part of that journey is about how we support one another to improve. Because, without some sort of feedback that we are able to act on, individual, and therefore collective, improvement will stall.

If I decided, for example, to improve my very basic tennis (however, unlikely this scenario might seem to anyone who knows me), and hit tennis balls for an hour every day, there is no certainty that my tennis would ever actually get any good – or that I would ever actually hit the ball over the net. The issue here would be lack of feedback. Without feedback, on which I reflect and act, I am unlikely to change my grip or my swing or my stance (or whatever else I might be doing poorly) and therefore without that feedback I am unlikely to improve.

However, there is a tension here. I know I need feedback to help me get better – and I want to get better – but I’m still not all that keen on anyone pointing out what I’m doing wrong. In Thanks for the Feedback’, Stone and Heen point out that receiving feedback sits at the intersection’ of two of the basic psychological needs that we have already discussed – our drive to learn and our longing for acceptance.’ But honest feedback is certainly what we need.

There has been much written about how we use feedback to help teachers improve their classroom practice through, for example, instructional coaching (https://researchschool.org.uk/durrington/news/leaders-become-an-expert-in-your-teachers ). But, as leaders, the power of conversation and feedback goes beyond what we do in the room. One aspect of feedback that we have worked on is the honest, and sometimes difficult, conversation.

Arguably, one thing which has historically prevented schools – or staff – from doing the right thing (rather than the thing which looks right) is the culture. Where there is a culture of blame, where there are high stakes, where there is a focus on proof rather than evaluation, it can lead to a perverse system where, by making things look good, we allow things to slip. We are so busy trying to prove we are doing the right thing, rather than honestly evaluate whether it is working at all, that we miss opportunities to get better.

Increasingly, it is clear that schools are creating cultures of honesty and trust – and that’s where these conversations come in.

Leaders across our schools need to be open. They need to encourage openness and honesty in others. And part of that is driven by feedback – both given and received. As Brene Brown says, to be clear is kind. To be unclear is unkind.’ All too often, I have known situations where someone refrains from honesty, from that difficult conversation, to try and spare someone’s feelings. In actual fact, I would suggest that they are merely sparing their own. Because difficult conversations are uncomfortable. But, as David Didau says in Intelligent Accountability, by making excuses for those around us, by tolerating things we find irritating, by wishing for a quiet life, by allowing ourselves to live a lie, we erode the possibility of happiness.’

But these conversations are not just about holding to account; they are about the collective endeavour to look honestly at what we do and how we could each do it better. We need, as Didau says, to replace the norm for using evidence to confirm our prejudices to using it to explore how we might think and act differently.’

However, it can be easy to know what we should do and yet difficult to do. In Leadership Matters, Andy Buck refers to a continuum of difficult conversations. At one end of the spectrum, he puts nudge conversations, whether you gently raise an issue through humour or in passing. By their very nature, these conversations are pretty easy to have. At the other end of the spectrum are those conversations that lead to someone leaving the school… The hardest conversations to have, the ones we tend to put off more than any others, are those that sit in the middle.’

Those are the most important ones, the ones we absolutely need to make sure that we have. With planning and thought and careful handling, those difficult conversations can actually help to build, rather than break a relationship. This relates to the framework in Radical Candor where she talks about the need to care personally’ and challenge directly’, offering some key thoughts about how we should approach the giving of feedback. She highlights the need to be absolutely clear in your own mind what it is that you want to say. In addition, she talks about the importance of being humble. We don’t have all the answers; we are not always right. So, we need to be clear in the feedback – but listen properly and fully to the response. Feedback needs to be as immediate as possible. If there is something that needs to be said, it does not benefit from time and distance. If we want to be clear, specific and therefore helpful, we have to do it quickly. Consider the place, however. A quick conversation may be all that is needed – but make it private.

Radical Candor also confronts the fact that, at times, we may be tempted to resort to sharing feedback by email. We probably tell ourselves that it is because it is more efficient – when the real truth is that it can just be a bit awkward. Feedback is an emotionally charged thing – and that is ok. We just have to ensure we don’t bring our own emotions too.

Fierce Conversations offers the most useful framework that I have found for planning properly for those difficult conversations. She talks about the idea of confrontation and how that oftens conjures up a vision of adversaries. However, she suggests seeing the word confront’ as beginning with con’ in the Spanish sense of with’. So, to confront becomes being side by side with someone as you examine an issue together. She also suggests planning – and even scripting – your opening statement. In order to ensure we minimise the emotional wake’ we create with our words, we can plan a really thoughtful statement which creates the right tone, gives clarity about the situation and offers a useful example. She even gives a useful 60 second framework that we can use – with the idea that to continue for longer than that is to begin to waffle and lose clarity. So, deliver the 60 seconds and then stop and wait.

She suggests that, within that 60 seconds, we:

Name the issue
Give one specific example
Describe your feelings about the issue
Clarify what is at stake, why this is important
Accept your contribution to this problem
Indicate your wish to resolve
Invite them to respond

Her final piece of advice is to practise so that you can deliver clearly and without bringing your own emotional load to the conversation.

So, to be part of something bigger than ourselves, we all have to be willing to be honest, to have the difficult conversations when we need to, and commit to confrontation – where we examine a situation together. And together, we will all improve.

Tara McVey

Evidence Lead in Education


Intelligent Accountability – David Didau https://www.johncattbookshop.com/intelligent-accountability

Thanks for the Feedback – Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen https://www.amazon.co.uk/Thanks-Feedback-Science-Receiving-Well/dp/1611762510

Fierce Conversations – Susan Scott https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fierce-Conversations-Achieving-success-conversation/dp/0349417369

Radical Candor – Kim Scott https://www.radicalcandor.com/the-book/

Leadership Matters – Andy Buck https://www.amazon.co.uk/Leadership-Matters-Leaders-Levels-Schools/dp/1909717908

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68 – 78. https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2000_RyanDeci_SDT.pdf

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