I saw today that there was a workshop on challenging or ‘fierce’ conversations at my former district.
This always makes me smile or more accurately, grimace.
I guess the idea behind challenging conversations is that we need to have them, we need to be honest and we need to get at the root of the issue. All great ideas, but what is probably never addressed at these workshops are the consequences of having these conversations.
Yes, you can have these conversations and as an administrator, I have had my fair share. I once had one of these conversations with an irate mother who was upset because I disciplined her son for being abusive to one of our educational assistants. At one point, I had to say to her that I was surprised that while she could easily see how her son might have been upset about my actions, she couldn’t understand how his actions had affected one of our staff members.
This is what happens with ‘fierce’ conversations. If the other party doesn’t like how things are going, there is always another authority they can go to. In this case, the parent went to my superintendent with a letter asking for my removal from the school.
The superintendent’s only response was ‘what did you do to create this situation?’
Not very helpful. This all led to another conversation where I – on my own – met again with the parents who in the interim had discovered that their child actually liked me and was not at all upset about the incident. I am not sure how the staff member felt.
This is the big thing about doing a presentation on courageous conversations. The presenters seldom have to do these. Also, the question never comes up – what if people go over your head at the end of the conversation?
If they do, what happens to your ability to have further conversations?
A few years later, in a different school, I had another one of these conversations. This time it was with a member of the office staff who had put out a note to teaching staff which was inappropriate.
Again, the conversation went well over my head. The disgruntled staff member went to her union, to the head of human resources and eventually to the superintendent of human resources. The staff member developed a whole case against me.
Administrators in Ontario do not have unions. People can make baseless accusations against them and there is really no defence against these. In my case, the school board decided that they needed to investigate all these claims and I was suspended with pay for three weeks while the investigation continued.
There was never a formal end to the investigation. I was told that everything was OK and I could go back to work (right after the Christmas break). The office staff member was removed to another school. She never missed a day of work. While all the accusations remained unproven and certainly unfounded, I never received an apology for how I was treated by a school board I had worked with for over 20 years.
All to say, let’s be a little more honest or “courageous” when we pronounce about difficult, courageous or even fierce conversations. Who believes in you and has your back when your position requires that you have these conversations?
When you call for courage, first model courage.