Three Critical Points About Successful Conversations

Leaders have an enormous responsibility to convene and conduct conversations where people involved feel free to speak openly without reprimand. Earlier this month we offered three important points to consider when having conversations. They were to 1) Listen fully. 2) Respond by offering genuine and authentic paraphrases. 3) Maintain a mindset of respect and presume positive intent on behalf of the other person, as well as yourself.

There is a process involved in holding a successful conversation – be it one that is planned and scheduled or one that happens in the spur of the moment. During our seminars, we teach this process on a deep level. For now, let’s look at three critical components of successful conversations.

  1. Trust – It is the leader’s responsibility to offer an attitude and environment of trust to those who gather for the conversation. Beginnings matter even as we know that trust grows and builds throughout the conversation. A smile, a handshake, calling someone by name, using a tone of voice that sends a message of respect and reassurance. When called into the leader’s office for a meeting, many people will tense up, even holding their breath. When is the last time you tried to talk while holding your breath?
  2. Agreements – As someone who is committed to being coach-like during your conversations, go for agreements. Agreements offer certainty about what we are going to talk about and how we will move through a conversation. When people feel that they are part of the decisions made around agreements, they are more likely to feel safe and respected and thus engage in the conversation at a much deeper level. Three types of agreements are:
    • Time – Getting an agreement around time brings a greater sense of certainty. Instead of wondering how long this meeting is going to last – let’s agree together on the length – knowing times can be extended as all agree.
    • Topic – This is the main focus for the conversation. Since we can only tend to one concern or challenge at a time, it’s critical to get clear on the “one thing” that we agree to as the main topic of the conversation and the importance of this one topic. Sometimes you bring the topic, but if it is truly a coaching conversation, the other person brings the topic.
    • Outcomes – Many times we move into a conversation and never clearly identify the desired outcome for the conversation. We just keep talking until time is up. Typically, before getting to an agreed-upon outcome, there is a time for exploration around the topic to be clear on what is really desired as a result of the conversation. Exploration is a critical component of a conversation. Getting an agreement on the outcome is a must, as is stating the outcome verbally. Otherwise, you may have one idea of what the outcome for the conversation is, while others have a totally different understanding. Once the outcome is agreed upon – move the conversation toward the desired outcome.
  3. Follow-Up – Decisions are made during conversations that call for action on your part and the part of others. Without follow-through on next steps, there is no real movement toward the agreed upon desired results. Before the conversation ends, have participants state clearly their next steps to ensure follow-through.

What parts of this nugget are speaking the strongest to you? When you hold conversations, how do you establish a sense of trust between all engaged in the conversation? What methods do you use to identify agreements for the conversation? How clear are all involved on the identified outcome of the conversation? Finally, how do you plan for and ensure follow-through as a result of the conversation?

Want to increase your skills in holding successful conversations? Join us at an upcoming seminar and experience for yourself the power of being a coach leader.

Also, if you have not yet purchased one or both of our books on Results Coaching, here is the link for easy access.

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Take Three For Successful Conversations

“I need to have a conversation with someone, but for some reason I’m holding off, or I’m not sure of the best approach to take.” That is a statement that we at RCG hear over and over again, even from highly successful leaders. What is it that causes people, including high-flying leaders, to hesitate before having a conversation with a colleague or subordinate? It is certainly not for lack of support on how best to have the conversation. In fact, during a recent Internet search for books on having conversations, 48,225 were listed as possible options. Clearly, there is no shortage of books about a variety of processes and practices with regard to conversations, yet leaders continue to seek best approaches to use when holding conversations with others.

What is the purpose of any conversation? We believe the intent within any conversation, whether personal or professional is for human beings to interact through the use of words and feelings to communicate thoughts and ideas, make connections, understand from different perspectives, gain clarity, and consider possible actions as a result of the conversation. Notice the descriptors of a successful conversation. They are to:

  • Be together so that you can see and hear each other.
  • Have interaction of thoughts, feelings and ideas between individuals.
  • Make/strengthen connections.
  • Understand from different perspectives.
  • Gain clarity.
  • Consider possible actions.

There is a secret to having successful conversations and it’s one that we are eager to share. It consists of three important points. For this article, let’s call them Take Three for Conversations.

  1. Listen. Enter the conversation with the intent to listen and understand from the other person’s perspective. Yes, we get it that there are times when the leader is to speak first and the other person is to listen. However, in most cases it is much better for you to ask, to listen and then respond. If you have done work with us in the past, you know from personal experience that once another person feels heard, really heard, they will relax and engage.
  2. Show that you understand. This best happens when you paraphrase the essence of what the other person has said. This is another trademark of our work. Your paraphrase does not mean that you agree – it means that you understand, or are trying to understand. Paraphrases are short and are stated in ways that focus on the other person’s feelings and main point(s).
    1. “You were surprised that you did not hear about this sooner.”
    2. “You feel like you are standing alone on a foreign dock.”
    3. “You want to be more involved in your child’s education.”
  3. Model an attitude of respect. If you have been through our seminars, you also know that we place a heavy emphasis on presuming positive intent on behalf of the other person, or entire groups of people. Your language can either make or break the conversation. Voice tone matters and so does the way you pose a question or make a statement. Which question or statement below would you rather receive?
    1. “Can you do what is expected, or do I have to write you up?”
    2. “Stop talking and do as I say!”
    3. “How are you thinking that you would like to proceed so that we move forward in a productive manner?”
    4. “What ideas are coming to mind for you that you would like to share?”

Try these three steps out and see what a difference it makes for you. And, if you have not yet experienced the power of one of our seminars, sign up today for Leadership Coaching for High Performance or Instructional Coaching or contact us to come directly to your district. That’s a step that you will be very glad you took!

Three Ways to Draw Positivity Close During the Holiday Season

As we close out 2016, we send to each of you our appreciation and respect for the work that you do on behalf of students everywhere. As you take a break and enjoy time alone and with family and friends, we offer a reminder of three ways to draw states of positivity close to you like warm and welcomed gloves feel during the cold, winter season. Thank you, Barbara Fredrickson, for your expanded list of ten forms of positivity (Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.) Here are three.

Joy: Circumstances that spark joy are being in surroundings that are safe and familiar. Things are going your way or going even better than expected. The situation requires little effort on your part.

Gratitude: Gratitude comes when we appreciate something that has come our way as a gift to be treasured. It opens your heart and carries the urge to give back.

Serenity: Like joy, serenity enters when your surroundings are safe and familiar and require little effort on your part, but it is much more low-key than joy. It is a mindful state, and she calls it the afterglow emotion.

For more information on Positivity and other critical states of mind and leadership behaviors, check out our new book, Results Coaching Next Steps: Leading for Growth and Change. Click here to order your copy today.

Creating a Coaching Culture

cultureHow would you describe the culture of your school? How did your school arrive at this culture?

Organizations of all sizes and types exhibit their own culture, which is developed intentionally or perhaps by default or inattention, or past practices. Realizing the importance of intentionally creating a culture of openness, engagement, fairness, trust, and reflective practices is increasingly important in the work of schools. All school leaders seek to be successful and show student results. Student success does not occur in a vacuum or even only through more and more attention to data. Although extremely relevant to student achievement, attention to data alone is insufficient. Students and staff require a trusting and trusted environment in which to do their work.

A coaching culture is created through day-to-day interactions within a climate of respect that includes a commitment to listening fully, paraphrasing to increase understanding and clarity, presuming the best in others and using language that aligns with that belief, and offering feedback that builds on what is working, highlighting strengths, and offering reflective questions for deeper thinking and to offer possibilities.

When these essential skills of coaching are evident on a consistent basis, the coaching culture begins to build—one person at a time—until suddenly it is prevalent and the coaching culture is sweeping the entire school.

What do visitors notice when they enter your school? How aligned is your school culture to that of a coaching culture as described below?

  • Adults and students in conversation who are fully attending to one another without distraction
  • Teachers who are taking risks with new and innovative instructional practices
  • Meetings and informal interactions characterized by evocative and thought-provoking questions
  • Individuals seeking solutions collaboratively
  • Dedicated time for coaching conversations

In our work we have numerous stories of ways one committed individual can begin the impetus for a cultural shift away from a culture of top-down, fear-driven, disengaged culture toward a culture of engagement and productivity and reflective practices. Intentional conversations, development of self-efficacy through providing a safe environment for risk-taking, and providing time for reflection and coaching pave the way for a broad impact on an entire school culture.

Take for example the story of Jenny. Jenny is an experienced principal who was recently assigned to a school identified as low performing and in need of immediate attention. Jenny has the mindset of a coach leader and knows how important her behaviors are in leading the school toward an authentic turnaround headed toward significantly increased student results. She understands this will call for an intentional focus on what they (all stakeholders) want vs. what they do not want. She is committed to engaging stakeholders in thoughtful conversations that result in greater degrees of confidence, competence and the courage to achieve desired results.

To read in more detail about creating a coaching culture and stories of individuals within organizations that embody a coaching culture, read Chapter 6 in Results Coaching Next Steps: Leading for Growth and Change.

Reasons Why I Don’t Give Advice

give-adviceADVICE: It’s a topic that never ceases to emerge when people are learning to coach more effectively. Recently after coaching a participant during one of our seminars, the question was asked, “How do you keep from giving advice?” I answered the question then and with your permission I’d like to explore the topic with you as a reader.

I have begun to be a collector of quotes and here are just a few to start your thinking.
As professional positions go, fewer and fewer really do offer advice because, quite simply, through the years we have both personally and intellectually learned how futile it is, and more importantly, how damaging it holds the potential to be.

Let’s review a couple of writings and research.

What if we begin with finance – the place where it would seem to be the most useful thing to give. A 2009 research study between financial advice and decision-making by Engelmann, Capra, Noussair and Berns illustrated that the brain “offloads” while it is taking in advice. The brain goes into neutral and the actual advice does not embed in the neocortex while the advice is being given. As a consequence, ownership might happen later or not happen at all. In my own experience a few years ago, I sought advice about placement of monies from the sale of my parents’ home. It was very interesting to me how the financial advisor would never offer his advice even with me asking, “What would you do?” His answer was always the same, “It depends; every person and situation is different.” Then he proceeded to lay out some pros and cons to various options that would best be determined by me alone. Wow! I was impressed and truly challenged to think deeply about my situation and what was best for me, my children and my family. I believe the process taught me so much and I felt very proud with deep ownership of my decision.

As we conclude this segment, let’s consider our field of education – that place we know best. For some reason advice giving is still very much alive and well. There are numerous writings and research that offer information to support the opportunity to pause and to reflect on what we all might do more skillfully. Education is for the purpose of learning, and to learn our brains have to do its work by considering fact and opinion, truth and non-truth, pro and con, impact and outcomes, etc. David Rock in his writings and books continues to remind us that we are in the Information Age and the most important thing we teach others is how to think deeply about how they do their work and make decisions. In Part II we will consider current leadership research and some language and strategies we might put in place to grow educators as well as students – our priority. So until then, what if we reflect on two types of situations – 1) situations where advice never enters your mind, and 2) situations when your mind is screaming to offer advice. Sounds like fun action research!

Positive Presuppositions—The Questions We Ask

In this month’s series, we have focused on the mindset of presuming positive intent. Now, we are ready for what you have all been waiting for . . .  the questions. How do you construct questions so that your language matches your mindset? Here we go . . . positive presuppositions.

questionsAs educators, we have perfected the art of asking questions. Our point here is to offer a perspective about the questions we ask. First, we believe that in coaching there is a difference between questions that are for gaining information and questions that provoke thinking. While we want both, we want the majority of our questions to be those that promote thinking. Here are some insights about questions that make a difference:

Most people have the answers to their own questions.

Most people find the best answers for themselves, within themselves.

Following are seven attributes of questions that provoke thinking.

Seven Attributes of Questions that Make a Difference

Building on the insights, there are attributes of questions that make a difference. These seven essentials include:

  1. Presume positive intent — “Knowing that our focus is on science instruction this year, what goals are you focused on for the first 6 weeks?” This one question presumes positive intent, offers status, lifts up a standard, and holds able.
  2. Focus on solution — “What options have you and your team determined as possibilities for your solution?” In this question, we see a standard and/or expectation for meeting with the team, talking about options, generating possibilities, and a focus on solutions over problems.
  3. Invite vision thinking — “When June of 2018 arrives, what will you and your team be celebrating about literacy performance for your grade level?” This question begins with the end in mind. It suggests consideration of measures of success, that the team is talking about these important details, and that there will be a celebration.
  4. Focus on positive connections — “As you plan for management of classroom behavior, what learning from your Love and Logic training will be most beneficial to your plan?” This question builds a bridge between what has been learned and the expected implementation. It models multiple standards — planning and strong classroom management — and it holds the teacher able to make it happen.
  5. Incorporate specific actions — “As you implement your plan, what will be your first step or what do you want to do first?” which may be followed by, “What will you do next, and so on?” In a coaching conversation, this is an important question as the conversation nears the end. It consolidates all the thinking and possibilities generated in the conversation and narrows to the intended action. Making it explicit rather than implied ensures the brain of the person speaking has crystalized his or her commitment to action.
  6. Consider resources — “What resources are you thinking you want to consider or draw from as you move forward with your plan?” Checking in on resources provides an opportunity for another to think about a body of support that is available, from other people to well-respected best practices, research, and readings.
  7. Hold able — “As we end, what are you thinking you want to do between now and the next time we talk?” This ensures the person is doing the heavy lifting instead of us. The language demonstrates my belief in you as a competent and capable person and gives you the autonomy to take action on your behalf. When we do for others what they can do for themselves, we sabotage ourselves because we send the subconscious message to status that you are unable to do this yourself.

Questions that Presume Positive Intent

For those of you who have been in our seminars, you have a strong visual image of the language that presumes positive intent when asking questions. In fact, many of you carry the picture on your phone as a reminder of how we actually “switch” language as if it were a light switch to ensure it sends a positive message. We ask that you draw a circle in the center of your paper with these words in the middle of the circle:

Have you . . .?

Did you . . .?

Can you . . .?

Could you . . .?

Do you . . .?

Now, with a very bold marker, draw a diagonal line to signify this is the language that we do not want to use to begin our questions. Not only does the language presume negative intent, the questions are closed and are answered with a yes or no response. We want positive presuppositions that show clear declarations of belief in the other person. The replacement language that we write on the outside of the circle includes phrases such as

What . . .?

When . . .?

How . . .?

Which . . .?

with value adds such as

Based on . . .?

In what ways . . .?

Using data . . .?

Relying on . . .?

Having tried . . .?

Since . . .?

to beginning with a status statement such as

Knowing your level of commitment . . .?

As someone who . . .?

Given you are a teacher who . . .?

This does not mean that we profess one should never use a closed question. Sometimes asking “Is this what you really want?” or “Would you like to stop and talk about this?” is very appropriate. We are saying there is an overabundance of closed questions, and in most cases, deep reflection comes from evocative and open-ended questions. This is also an opportunity to remind us that we refrain from asking questions that are leading others to respond in a way that has been determined by us to be the right answer. We do not ask leading questions, whether opened or closed.

Want to know more about presuming positive intent and asking questions that make a difference? Join us at one of our upcoming public seminars or bring us directly to your district.

Presuming Positive Intent and Positive Presuppositions

Welcome Back! It’s a new year, a new beginning, and that special time of the year that offers us all a fresh start! Just listen to this celebration from Principal, Amy Howell of Northwest ISD, Texas.

Amy Howell“I wanted to let you know a wonderful celebration we had! During our coaching conversations we talked about the power of positive presuppositions. We started our back to school kick off with “Having Positive Presupposition.” IT WAS AWESOME!!! While the teachers were talking about the article, I was walking around and heard, “This sounds like how you talk to us.” I was beaming! It couldn’t have gone better and it has given us an amazing start to the year.”

Much like Amy’s celebration, we contend that if you invited us to your school for a professional learning experience that would dramatically impact the culture of your school, it would be teaching the concept of presuming positive intent. We would also state without reservation that this is the easiest concept to get cognitively and the most difficult to internalize in our language. Why? Because of brain hardwiring! We have practiced our language patterns for a long time, so the default is to continue that pattern especially when under stress. It takes intention, determination, and a strong commitment to create new wiring.

Our words send messages to the brain that can be interpreted as safety or threat. In our first book, RESULTS COACHING: The New Essential for School Leaders, we describe in detail why language matters and how the presumption of positive intent holds the potential for influencing the conscious and subconscious mind, for creating safety for authentic sharing, and for opening the door for deep levels of trust and respect in a relationship.

A Matter of Distinction:  What Is the Difference?

Before we get to constructing questions that presume positive intent, let’s consider a distinction between the presumption of positive intent and positive presuppositions. The first is a global perspective of presuming the best of others, which then spills out into the specific language of our statements and our questions, called positive presuppositions. The first is an adaptive change — a mindset — that we hold that presumes positive intent on the part of the other person. It’s like an umbrella covering our way of thinking about how we work with another person. Second, a demonstration of the mindset is the language of our statements or questions, which is called a positive presupposition. This is a technical change meaning the skill set of how we construct our statements or questions to presume positive intent. An example of mindset is an overall belief in the other person to find his/her own solutions thus eliminating the need for advice giving. The skill is the specific language of a statement or question which demonstrates that belief such as, “When you spoke with the parents about their child, what was the response?”

Here are additional statements that demonstrate a mindset of positive intent.

  • You believe all people want to be good at what they do.
  • You believe people want to be valued and make a difference in this world.
  • You believe that people show up to do the right thing and make good choices.
  • You believe people care about those they teach or lead.
  • You believe everyone is working hard and when things prevent their best it is due to life distractions.

Creating new wiring is truly an adaptive change; an inside-outside process. It requires that mind and body align with the language we speak—so easy to say and so hard to do. It takes us to the essential mindset of a coach leader:

  • Belief in another’s ability to grow and excel — A growth mindset is mandatory. The minute one steps off the belief that a person can grow is the minute one chooses to diminish his/her own potential for impact with a person.
  • Recognition that “advice is toxic!” — Because we understand the importance of giving status to another, we get why advice does just the opposite. And we recognize that giving advice is really feeding our status rather than the status of the other person.
  • Use of intentional language that aligns with our trust and belief in others — This is the one that sounds really easy, and yet we know from our work with you that it’s really hard. You report, “My head knows it, my mouth just says something different.” Again, we realize it’s about our years of practicing a language pattern. Now that we know another option, we can create and practice new wiring. Here is a story that shows the importance of mindset and its impact on our work.

A Story From You: Coaching Begins With Me and My Mindset

This story illustrates both the essential mindset and how we show up for a conversation based on that mindset. I (Karen) was working in the Houston area and was approached during a break for some coaching about a high school department head. The math coordinator described the department head as extremely negative, so much so, that her negativity was bleeding into the attitudes of the team members and affecting their productivity together. The coaching began . . .

Coach: It is the morning that you are going to work with this particular department head. As you get out of bed, what are you saying to yourself about the person and the work before you?

Math Coordinator: Oh, I can hardly get up! Today will be excruciating, hard, and exhausting! All my energy will go toward trying to get this person to see my point of view about the work. There will be a vortex of negativity and little will be accomplished on behalf of the team or the students.

Coach: (With humor.) Please stop! Thank goodness this day is over! It’s a new day and you are getting out of bed to work with your best department head. What are you saying to yourself about the person and the work before you?

Math Coordinator: Oh, I can’t wait! Our work together is always invigorating and inspiring. Our ideas spiral up as we consider possibility after possibility. The team is on fire and future focused — what can they do next that will accelerate the learning of the team and their students?

Math Coordinator: I get it! It’s about me! What I put in my head is reality for how I will work with the department head. The work begins with me and what I say to myself.

BINGO! Through coaching, the math coordinator saw clearly what was at the center of her struggle. The mirror changed from facing the department head to facing the math coordinator (or herself). She realized that the language or story she told herself would be actualized in how she showed up for her conversation with others.

Check your Mindset . . .

How are you ensuring the non-negotiables are present in your work with others?

  1. I believe in this person’s ability to grow and excel.
  2. I believe advice is toxic and refrain from giving it.
  3. I use language that is intentional and aligns with my trust and belief in others.  

Coming up in the Blog will be ways we work on our hardwiring so that the presumption of positive intent is embedded and integrated into our language.

Five Ways to Reduce Blind Spots

be-aware-listening-engagedWe talked earlier this month about possible blind spots in our current view of reality related to our workplace culture. Here are a few thoughts on ways to reduce blind spots. These ideas are embedded in our soon to be released Results Coaching Next Steps: Leading for Growth and Change.

  • Listen to understand from the other person’s perspective.
  • Refrain from jumping to conclusions that may or may not be accurate, or seeking to impose our own views rather than understanding their views.
  • Use the skill of paraphrasing in responses to demonstrate respect, understanding and make connections so that the person feels safe to continue.
    • If people do not feel safe to continue- they will shut down or elevate an aggressive state (fight, flight or freeze). This is a Trust Buster.
    • Hormones are released in the brain (Oxytocin – feel good hormone, or Cortisol – feel bad hormone). We seek Trust Building.
  • Maintain an attitude of presuming positive intent, which shows up in our language and our internal thoughts. Remember, chemical reactions are happening internally for everyone during a conversation.
  • Ask discovery/powerful questions where you do not already have the answers.
    • This is what coach-leaders do.
    • If you ask questions where you already know the answers – that is called a leading question and that is not the behavior of a coach leader.

Keeping The Torch Lit

flaming torch in people hand for sports concept designHow does one create a positive coaching culture that is sustainable throughout the toughest of times as well as the best of times? In our work with school leaders, certain patterns and themes emerge that build and sustain this positive, engaging school culture.

Begin with yourself. Leaders who fully embrace the mindset of a coach leader identity see its power potential and commit to the integration of coaching attitudes and skills in all areas of life. When others witness this change in their leader, or experience a leader who embodies this identity, they become believers and want it for themselves.

Presume positive intent. The mindset that others are thinkers and planners and have positive intent for action can be the catalyst that changes cultures. When leaders presume the best in others, others give their best.

Commit to one conversation at a time. We often quote Susan Scott in her book Fierce Conversations, “The conversation is the relationship.” Time after time the stories we hear about successful, sustainable positive school cultures are about offering full presence by listening fully and choosing our responses intentionally while committing to each conversation as if it were the most important conversation we will have that day.

New beginnings offer a space for inspiration and motivation. Keeping the torch lit requires visioning and intentional embodiment of the attitudes and skills of coach leadership. How will you sustain your intention and commitment to hold yourself and those you lead able to make sure the fire continues to burn?

The kids are back!

portrait of smiling little school kids in school corridorSchool is in session for many of us. Now that we have staff in place and classrooms assigned, we are ready to face the always-new experiences that greet us with the diversity of personalities we will encounter on a daily basis. Whether it is our interactions with students or with adults, we are committed to the flexible and positive mindset that others are willing and able to grow. We exhibit that positive intent through our “being”, which shows up in our body language and our verbal language. Of course, we want those to match, so we decide over and over again how we want to show up and relate with others—those we are most eager to be with and those that test our limits of positivity. We also reflect on our interactions as we, ourselves are learners and continually grow in our coach leader mindset and identity.