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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

6 Beliefs to Help Prevent Communication Breakdown

By Peter DeWitt — July 17, 2016 5 min read
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Communication. We have a plethora of ways to communicate these days, but it doesn’t mean we do it any better than when we only had the opportunity to mail a letter or pick up our rotary phones to slowly dial the number of our friends or family.

Just because we have more ways to communicate doesn’t mean that we have improved on communication. Many times we use Facebook or Twitter to share our messages, more than we use it to authentically engage with other people. Truth be told, I sometimes wonder if we filter our feelings even more now because we are afraid of how they will be read by others reading our posts.

The issue with communication is not that we don’t do it, but how we do it. Sometimes we enter into a conversation with our set of talking points; making sure that we get to each one of those talking points before the conversation ends or we won’t feel successful.

When we are at home or at work we are at risk of having less dialogue and having more individual sessions of monologue. We act as though we are listening to our partner when we are actually spending time looking like we are listening, but in reality are thinking about the next thing we want to say.

What does this have to do with school?
In school we send out newsletters, have faculty meetings, and brand our school by sending out Tweets to parents with pictures of students and staff engaging in learning. Each of these can be beneficial to opening up the walls of school and having transparency with parents or staff, but if done correctly it’s just another example of compliant engagement rather than authentic engagement.

For example, we have faculty meetings where we go through a list of important dates and tasks to complete by the end of the month before the next faculty meeting rolls around. However, none of those talking points allow us to enter into authentic dialogue with our staff. People sit compliantly at the faculty meeting at the same time we talk about getting students to be active learners. We need to practice what we preach by flipping our meetings (5 Reasons You Should Flip Your Faculty Meetings) and engaging in true dialogue around learning.

Branding is highly important, but only if we have a structure in place where parents can communicate back to us. Do we Tweet out pictures without ever responding to parents on Twitter? If so, we are guilty of sending out our message (or propaganda) without ever listening to the message of our parents.

Communication. True, authentic communication involves both parties entering into the conversation open to listening more than we talk, and not wanting to get our way, but come out of the dialogue with a better way that was created by both parties. Clearly, this is really difficult to do and does not happen in every conversation, but it should happen more than we allow it to happen now.

Instructional coaching expert Jim Knight, someone I work with as an instructional coaching trainer, is a mentor and friend. I have learned an enormous amount about coaching and communication from our conversations and reading his books. Knight believes we should practice communication like we practice a sport. We would never enter into a 5K road race without training, and yet we enter into conversations without practice all the time because we think we are really good at it when the reality is that we may not be very good at all (click here to watch Knight’s Better Conversations seminar on Edchat Interactive).

6 Beliefs of Conversation
In Better Conversations: Coaching Ourselves and Each Other to be More Credible, Caring and Connected Knight writes about the 6 beliefs we have to have before entering into conversations at home or at school. Those beliefs are:

I see others as equal partners - every person we get into a conversation with needs to feel valued, which begins with us understanding that no matter who it is that we are engaging in dialogue with has something important to bring to the table.

I want to hear what others have to say - As collaborative leaders or teachers, we need to believe that we truly care about what our talking partner has to say. This means entering into dialogue with our talking points but suspending them to let the conversation flow because the other person’s thoughts are just as important as our thoughts are.

I believe people should have a lot of autonomy - This one is tough when it comes to school because many teachers, parents and students don’t feel as they have a voice. It’s important that the people we work with have the ability to make choices. For example, the curriculum may be set, but we don’t have to dictate how everyone teaches. We also need to understand that when talking with someone they may not agree with our opinions and they have the right to make that choice.

I don’t judge others - Yes, this is hard. For full disclosure this is hard for me. I have judged others because they make choices I wouldn’t, so I have had to work hard on not judging others for their actions. Let’s face it, we have all done things we are not proud of, and have to be more accepting of others. Judging them shuts down the conversation before it starts.

Conversations should be back-and-forth - This goes back to my original point about dialogue rather than one-sided monologue. One person should not be dominating the conversation and it should involve authentic back-and-forth between both parties.

Conversations should be life-giving - Knight believes we should have empathy for our talking partners, which will help provide the context for which they are coming from when they enter the conversation. When we do that successfully we will both walk away from the conversation being better for it, and that’s why our conversations should be life giving.

In the End
Communication is not easy, and Knight’s 6 beliefs illustrate why communication can be difficult. There is a great deal that goes into a conversation, and we do not practice...or think of...those elements enough when we do enter into a conversation.

It’s important to understand the 6 beliefs of conversation before we enter into them, and Knight suggests we video log some of our conversations so we can watch if we listen more than we talk, ask good questions, and have authentic communication more than expect compliant communication.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.