The Conversation Before the Conversation
When planning any change, I always ask my team the same question, “have you had the conversation before the conversation?” It may seem an odd question, but it hits at the heart of relationship building, emotional and intellectual safety during change, and nurturing collaborative relationships around the work.
The conversation before the conversation is a technique I developed as a middle level principal for 22 years. Being a principal is an exercise in the study of human nature. I repeatedly noticed two stumbling blocks which are constant in organizations. First, why is change so hard in a professional setting, and second why do professionals revert to prior practices so readily? The same reaction to change I experienced with school staff was amplified at the district level as a director of technology.
I had the incredible opportunity as a principal to plan and open a new junior high school. I used the conversation before the conversation technique with parents by hosting weekly informal meetings at a local coffee shop for parents. Everyone was invited, but usually only a few parents came each week. We were planning a radically different type of school for our district, using research from Breaking Ranks in the Middle, by NASSP. The relationships we developed over coffee led to a shared understanding with engaged parents and helped us understand their concerns about the systems we were planning. We used those conversations as a building block for large scale meetings and communications to all parents. A small investment in coffee and time paid off with incredible parent support for our staff and students.
Later in my career, I was asked to lead the implementation of a district wide 1:1 computer initiative. As we built our plan I met privately with 21 leaders in the district, from special education to athletics, from instructional leadership to operations. Each leader had questions and thoughts related to their area of responsibility, and often questions as a parent and/or educator. Those conversations before any public plan or large group meeting helped avoid pitfalls and landmines which might have harmed the initiative. I was also strategic in the order I met with district leadership. I was aware that the special education department and the parents of our special needs students had always felt left out of initiatives and technology. By meeting with that director first, I was later able to talk in large public presentations about the importance of serving all children, and how that meeting was illustrative of my priorities. My strategic decision to build relationships helped us create a level of trust that had not previously existed.
I also scheduled meetings with small groups of parent leaders (PTA boards, booster club leadership) in every school in the district. Thirty-four meetings later we were able to publish an initial plan to the greater community which addressed most of the common concerns, invited feedback and built community support. The individual conversations before the larger district and community conversations helped ensure our communications and plans were global while the tone and substance addressed parental concerns in a caring meaningful way.
Technology is the life blood of any modern organization, it keeps the organization alive, much as the blood flowing through our veins brings oxygen to our organs. Our bodies are incredibly complex systems which are not fully understood. Our technology environments are also incredibly complex systems, which our district instructional leaders, budget offices and instructional staff may not fully understand. The conversation before the conversation is a technique to demystify technology and change while building mutual understanding.
Professional relationships are best built around the work. Collaborating and wrestling with issues in a private and safe environment, with the proposed change or work as a foundation of the conversation allows the relationship to grow. By being open to suggestions and ideas for implementation, trust is established.
The work which best builds trust and ongoing collaboration is around a needs assessment. What are department leaders planning in the next year, two or three? How can we serve and support their work? As we know, almost any learning initiative intersects with technology in today’s environment.
Taking the initiative to have private conversations prior to announcing an initiative or organizational change provides an opening to build professional trust and supports the creation of social capital. Building alliances and fostering understanding within both the folks who likely will agree and those who may be concerned by initiative and change is our goal. Honoring them with conversations in private is a trust building exercise.
Emotional and Intellectual Safety
As a teacher, I learned the students would not care until they knew I cared. The invitation to an informal conversation over coffee with a professional prior to a larger group conversation allows time to process and ask questions in a safe environment. It’s the professional equivalent of showing you care.
Preparing for the conversation is essential to ensure a safe space. I research any previous successes and / or issues this leader has had with technology. I want to understand their level of sophistication, as well as their preferred learning style. My conversation starter purposely conveys respect and positive intentions, with active listening techniques. Informally addressing the “why” behind any initiative and allowing the conversation to be inquisitive and feedback oriented ensures later success and support.
The conversation before the conversation means no surprises, no need for parking lot conversations to ask questions and the reduction of fear. Surprising the recipient of change is the quickest way to ensure hostility and failure. Respecting the recipient or leader with a private conversation leads to success.
I’m often asked how I have time for these conversations and coffee meetings. Time spent building relationships and receiving quality feedback reduces implementation issues and change resistance. Overall, it has a very positive impact on the quality of my leadership and the nature of my day.
The conversation is never done. We build in ongoing check-ins to listen, elicit feedback, and continue to foster the relationship. We truly want to understand how our partners are feeling, what they like and what concerns they still have. Change can be difficult and most importantly, the motives for change are often misunderstood. Safe environments and conversations are especially necessary when large or complex initiatives are technical in nature. I’ve come to understand it is my responsibility to ensure and build collaborative relationships, and if collaboration is not happening, then it is my responsibility to build the structures under which mutually beneficial professional relationships thrive.
Please join me at NCCE on Wednesday, March 22nd at 4:00pm. I’ll be sharing the needs assessment we’ve built to facilitate the conversation before the conversation. I look forward to seeing you there!
Education Ambassador – MicroK12
Retired teacher, principal, curriculum leader and director of technology MVetter@MicroK12.com
Tier One Sponsor
No More Surprises: A Needs Assessment and Budget Building Collaboration Tool
Wednesday, March 22, 4:00 pm – 4:50 pm.
TCC – Room 406
Speakers: Mark Vetter