Difficult Conversations

I was also thinking to call this post ‘More on Soft Skills’, since I am returning to the topic I already wrote about here .

My current project motivates to me to reflect a lot. Traveling ‘down memory lane’ (sorry for the cliché!) I have been looking through my notes on various instances/aspects I was dealing with as the Director of Studies (DoS), in order to create a list of ‘cases’ to use for the project.

In the above mentioned post I was writing about the lack of soft/people skills, or the ‘How’ to deal with a variety of situations and people a new DoS would most likely face in the new role. I was also writing that such skills are not usually ‘taught’ explicitly (especially not as a part of TESOL/Applied Linguistics major, or intensive training courses as initial teaching qualification). Moreover, these skills are not even part of a course when you are becoming a trainer (that is a different topic to discuss though)

I find articles on Harvard Business Review blog very helpful for the ‘management’ side of our ELT world. Specifically, these two posts made me want to write this time:

When to Skip a Difficult Conversation with the eleven questions helping us decide when and how to approach the conversation, and what might be a reason to skip it completely. Quoting them below.

  1. Based on what I know about this person and our relationship, what can I realistically hope to achieve by having the conversation?
  2. What is my “secret agenda” or “hidden hope” for this conversation? (Long-term harmony? Revenge? That they will change?)
  3. What concrete examples do I have to share of how this issue has shown up?
  4. What’s my contribution to the situation?
  5. Do I tend to look for problems with this person or about this issue?
  6. Is it already starting to resolve itself?
  7. How long ago did it arise? Is it a repeat or recurring problem? Could it become one?
  8. How “material” is the issue to our relationship or to the job?
  9. How committed am I to being “right”?
  10. What reasonable, actionable solution can I offer?
  11. Is this the right person to talk to about this issue?

A Mental Trick to Help with Challenging Conversations, a quote from which is a good reminder about being aware of and communicating positive regard:

Only when you become mindful of your biases can you choose a more constructive path. Positive assumptions make you open to progress; negative assumptions mire you in the past.

Taken in Barcelona. Summer 2015.

Taken in Barcelona. Summer 2015.

Examples of difficult conversations (a mixture of a DoS and Trainer issues)

Observing and giving feedback to a more experienced colleague

Communicating with a course participant about being in danger of not receiving the training course certificate (the competencies not being met)

Talking to a parent who is not happy with the progress (often, with the grade) the child received at their state school

Talking to a student who feels she is not making enough progress (not meeting the learning goal)

Reminding a teacher to complete the additional paperwork the school is experimenting with

Talking to a course participant about their group work skills (several other participants mentioned that it is hard to work with him/her in group lesson planning)

Having a meeting with senior management on re-structuring the school departments in the new academic year (discussing the changes it brings to the teaching team)

Negotiating a salary raise

Talking to… (what can you add?)

The longer the list gets, the clearer I see that perhaps any type of conversation at a school/on a course might be seen as ‘difficult’ at some point (under certain circumstances, in a certain culture/context, etc.) I wonder if having those 11 questions in mind might help. I wonder if being aware of the soft skills might change the perception of a situation. I wonder what else can help.

Finally, would like to add a link to a post by the Secret DoS On Dealing with Difficult People .The quote I especially like says:

‘There are no difficult people, but there are ways of reacting to people that can cause you difficulties’.

I could also add that there are no difficult people — it is specific conversations that might be/feel this way. Fortunately, there are strategies to make them easier, smoother, more meaningful… Softer?

Thank you for reading! 🙂

About Zhenya

teacher educator, evidence-based instruction trainer, PD Coach https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/
This entry was posted in Manager Reflections and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Difficult Conversations

  1. HL says:

    Spot on Zhenya! I think that a management role is mostly about having conversations, both good and difficult, but, in my experience, almost all of the time the difficult ones are avoided. One consequence is that staff are unaware of how to improve, or that they even need to! I agree with you completely and would love to see management supported in developing these skills.
    Most managers in my organisation have come from teaching roles, but have few real business skills. Learning from business-relevant sources like Harvard Biz should definitely be part of ELT management training.


    • Zhenya says:

      Thank you for your comment very much Helen: so true about this lack of awareness, and even though edu managers are trying/working hard, sometimes it is the ‘non-ELT’ skills that need to be ‘attended’. I think I have often worked in similar organisations – having teaching, not business background, has pluses, but downsides are there, too. Well, once aware, more chances for a change? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ven_vve says:

    Hi Zhenya,

    Since I chose not to get email notifications of new posts on the blogs I follow, several months ago, I often feel like I’m behind on my blog reading. But maybe I _am_ reading them at the right time. I was just going through some of the email folders on my old computer last night and was reminded of some difficult conversations I had as a DoS.
    I would add having to let a teacher go to the list, for whatever reason, even if this is arguably not something a DoS would have to do in a bigger school. Those were the hardest conversations for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Vedrana, thank you for leaving this comment. I totally agree with the added item (how could I have forgotten this one?) Seems like a DoS is often the HR of the school, and this involves the ‘hiring and firing’ processes…
      I like the idea of reading the posts at the time you feel like reading them (not when you are notified = ‘forced’ to read?) Should try this idea too 🙂
      Thank you for the conversations!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Formal observation – change in approach | How I see it now

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