Difficult Conversations: Not Always Comfortable, However Necessary

Steve Seward's picture

In the world of education, much like the world around us, there are always times when we are presented with difficult situations that require courageous conversations. We have the choice to avoid them, face them and handle them with frustration and judgment, or handle them well. Acting with intention is a key to developing shared understanding, mutual safety, and space for collaborative dialogue. These conversations can be difficult, however are necessary for the betterment of relationships.

Avoiding Conversations

If you are like most people, you might avoid crucial conversations because you do not feel confident voicing your concerns. Sometimes this is due to your skill with having the conversation, the potential political capital it might cost, or your past experiences with conflict (or the individual). Not having the conversation will ultimately cost you, the individual(s) involved, and the organization as a collective whole. Remember this...cognitive conflict when seeded in the context of safety and collaboration are what create sustained community.

Contentious Conversations

If you are like most people, you might complain to others about a situation, perseverate about the issue, or even get angry. Then something pushes you over the ledge and you decide it is time to have the conversation. Only problem is, now the conversation is emotionally charged. When you engage with the individual your thinking is often not clear, your body language is tense, and the intended message is lost or miscommunicated. It is important to engage in the conversation; however, always remember to act with intention, create a safe environment, seek shared understanding, and most importantly remember to presume positive intentions.

Intentional Conversations

Know your purpose and choose congruent behaviors. This is a phrase to keep in mind when acting with intention. The key to your shared success is to surface misconceptions and develop shared understanding, mutual safety, and space for collaborative dialogue. First, think about what might result if you do not have the conversation. Second, remember to engage in the conversation with an open mind and an inquiry-based stance. Third, pay attention to your non-verbals (posture, muscle tension, facial expressions, pace, gestures) to ensure the individual feels safe. Finally, assume positive intentions and encourage the individual to agree, disagree, or clarify. It's not about winning, instead about shared understanding.

Instead of involving others, take the time to think of your desired outcomes, script the conversation, think about the environment, and find a time to engage with the other individual(s). By doing this you will work together to clarify understanding, while at the same time creating an environment focused to collegial dialogue. Difficult conversations are tough, however necessary. Below is a conversation sequence as well as sentence stems that might support. As Socrates said, "It depends." There is no one way to have the conversation. Know you intention, know yourself, know your audience.