Ten Takeaways from ‘Successful Difficult Conversations’ by Sonia Gill

I posted on Twitter a rather honest assessment of myself. I fear difficult conversations, to the point that I actively avoid them. Or maybe I even try to fix the problem myself – inevitably increasing my workload. Or maybe what I do is try and sort the problem in a sly way, but now I realise this was a terrible thing to do. Not just as a leader but as a colleague. How are people meant to improve if we don’t make our feedback clear? It’s safe to say I’ve had a bit of an epiphany moment in the past week.

It started with an NPQML module about ‘Support and Challenge – Holding Yourself and Others to Account’. The previous module was about creating a high performing team, and the importance of trust. The module mentioned how not holding members of the team accountable can make others apathetic, and this was a totally valid point. I’ve definitely worked jobs before teaching where I’ve seen other people continue to break the rules, not perform properly, and not work as hard as everyone else and get they get away with it, and that’s made me question why I am doing everything properly. I realised I avoid difficult conversations because I am afraid of making others feel uncomfortable, or awkward, when in actual fact, I’m probably damaging the team as a whole.

I tweeted when the book ‘Successful Difficult Conversations in Schools’ arrived as a way of holding myself to account, saying openly ‘This is what I’m not very good at and this is how I plan to fix it’. This is actually quite a big deal for me – teaching is such a personal profession, that I think many people aren’t willing to be so open about what they need to improve. Lots of people expressed their love of the book. And because I feel really new to leadership, with my first year as HoD cut short by COVID-19, I feel I am in a really fortunate position to develop my leadership skills having dipped my toes in the water but also having the distance to reflect. And so, over the last 3 days, I have read and absorbed the advice of Sonia Gill and I can happily say that all the praise for the book on Twitter was well justified. It’s really helped me to put everything around difficult conversations in perspective.

It discusses why we should have these conversations, how to have them, and what to do if they don’t work. It covers the topic extensively, and every question I felt came up was covered at a later stage. I’ve reduced my thinking down to 10 key thoughts I have taken away. I’ve framed my ten takeaways as questions that had previously caused me anxiety/worry/avoidance and given a flavour of what the book told me and my thinking. If you are in a similar state as me (avoidance or just disliking) with difficult conversations I recommend you get this book. It’s given me a completely new outlook on the topic and I welcome these feedback conversations when we return.

What I realise now is that it isn’t just damaging for the team, it’s also damaging for the individual who needs the feedback, and also damaging for myself as I end up taking the problem on. I not only know now how to have these conversations but I genuinely feel it’s something I am capable of doing.

1. What is a difficult conversation?

This sounds silly I know, but I was wondering – where is the border between a ‘quick chat’ about something (which I feel I do!) and a ‘difficult conversation’. Gill explains them as a conversation about something that needs to improve, “where voicing issues is like to upset someone by some degree”. Of course how can we measure the level of upset? And sometimes people manifest that upset as denial, anger, blame – but for me this really helped as it made me realise that I probably do have these conversations sometimes. I’m probably lucky in that I have a team of people who do want to improve and they don’t get upset when I discuss what needs to improve. Of course, I probably have been avoiding the more difficult conversations which might result in upset.

2. What makes a difficult conversation successful?

Gill states that a successful difficult conversation “creates positive change, quickly and kindly”. This is mentioned early in the book, and becomes the real aim of the following chapters – how can we do this? And what are the pitfalls to avoid? When I read this early on in the book it wasn’t as obvious as it now feels to me. What might I have said preciously? A good difficult conversation gets the point across. Or ensures both people leave feeling comfortable. I’m not even sure. Now I have the goal in mind (“start with the end in mind”) it’s much easier to know what I need to do on the way to that goal.

3. How are schools affected by this issue?

I always thought of this as a personal issue, mainly for myself, but also for the individual who needs the conversation. Gill explores how actually this is an issue for schools as organisations, and discusses 5 ways schools lose out as a result of not carrying out these conversations. This really helped me to understand the wider impact of my own weakness. She mentions the more extreme impact, for example potentially losing staff members who become “frustrated at school leaders’ unwillingness to have the conversations that are needed”. Oh dear – that’s me I thought. Even more reason to sort myself out!

4. Why is healthy conflict important?

Gill makes a strong case throughout the book of the importance of healthy conflict in a school. The reality is, and I know this myself, that if we are doing something wrong we would rather someone tell us so we can fix it – sometimes people are simply unaware of what they might not be doing. Discussions over this will create healthy conflict, which is necessary. Gill also mentions Tuckman’s model for group development (1965). We looked at this during the NPQML and were asked what stages we might recognise. Of course, it’s easy to acknowledge when you have been at the ‘Storming’ stage but it’s something you want to move on from quickly. Gill makes a strong case that this isn’t actually what ‘Storming’ is about. She explains that (like when you have a new class) this is the phase when boundaries are set, when things become the norm, and therefore this is a healthy and necessary stage. My fear of conflict meant that the idea of ‘Storming’ actually made me wince a little, but I think when it was framed in terms of meeting a new class, I got it completely. I tell new staff each year that it’s normal for a class to go from honeymoon period to evil gremlins at the same time each year, and how it’s dealt with will define your relationships until the end of the year. Why did I not realise this is the same case for a group of teachers too?

5. What impact are these conversations having on me?

When I avoid these conversations I think I am doing right by the individual because I am not upsetting them. I know it bothers me. Reading the book gave me more of an insight not only into the time it takes when we avoid having these conversations, but there was a great metaphor used by Gill which has stuck with me. She said to think of each conflict as a rock. “Every time an issue comes along, you get a rock to put in your rucksack” – a valid point here is that we end up being weighed down by these issues, and I have certainly felt like this, carrying around unresolved issues because I’m too scared of healthy conflict!

6. How do I prioritise these conversations?

Gill give a few methods for choosing which conversations to handle first. She discusses the two worlds technique which was definitely useful, but also the behaviour/performance matrix. I’ve included an image of this below. Gill argues that performance is easier to improve than behaviour, and therefore it’s easier to move people up the matrix than along it. Therefore, it makes sense to be strategic with the conversations – after dealing with anyone in box 1 (thankfully I haven’t worked with anyone in this box!) to work with people in box 2/3 as you are more likely to have success here. It brought to mind also the skill/ will matrix which was mentioned in the NPQML (yes, I love a matrix) which gives you a similar indication of how individuals are working and who to prioritise – more on this later!

7. How do I open the conversation?

A large section of the book is devoted to this – thankfully! It covers how to prepare for the conversation, having evidence ready (as someone might deny the issue/ ask for it) and then the opening sentence. Gill’s framework for your opening sentence was given to me in the NPQML meeting and we had to trial some sentences, but after reading the book it has become much clearer to me how I need to begin. The sentence structure is:

“I, issue, the outcome”

It becomes really clear in reading the book that the outcome is the most important part of the opening sentence – and this is the bit I think is probably most missed! If we focus on the outcome, we are not providing the solutions, but we are helping the person to see what we want them to achieve. The book goes into this in so much detail, gives example openings sentences, and really helps you to prepare to initiate the conversation – something I really needed!

8. How do I manage when these conversations become emotional?

This is another major concern I have – I fear making the other person upset and all the other emotions which are involved in speaking about these things (guilt, denial, anger, frustration, embarrassment). For our NPQML module we had to circle key emotions we feel when giving the conversation but also when we’ve been receiving feedback. I could have highlighted all of them! Gill gives Berne’s theory of transactional analysis (1964) and discusses how this comes into play during conversations. I could easily recognise elements of the different states in various conversations I have been involved in – even ones at home!

What I also felt was that some of the people who have helped me prepare for conversations are really good at always being in the adult phase. In particular my link LT member is always level and calm even if I’m in child mode “I can’t do it”… etc. The image below explains the different ego states well, although it’s easy enough to research online. This really gave me an insight into how I need to control my behaviour in these conversations. I think I go into co-operative child/supportive parent mode way too easily “Oh no, I’m sorry, what can I do?” rather than the ideal adult mode: “I’m sorry. What would help right now?” I know these are small nuances of communication and something that will take some time to master, but you don’t know what you don’t know, and I knew nothing about this until reading the book, and the impact it is most likely having on the conversations I have.

9. How do I structure these conversations?

Gill provides a simple acronym for structuring the conversations (STORM – I won’t go into it here, but it’s really simple) and the really interesting part of this for me was O- options. I think I go into default mode during conversations of offering this at the start. I also find all the options myself. Gill argues that perhaps this isn’t ideal – but she also doesn’t say we should always coach people to find their own solutions. Gill acknowledges that we need a different approach for different people, and here she uses the skill/will matrix (below from the internet) to explain the different approaches needed depending on the individual – and the specific context of the conversation. This detailed coverage of just one part of the conversation really helped me to see what is at the core of these conversations: finding a solution together to a clear, achievable outcome.

10. What happens at the end of the conversation?

This is also my worry – what if nothing happens. Gill provides a clear way to prevent this – sending up a follow up e-mail outlining what the conversation was about, the agreed solutions, and giving a time for a follow up meeting. To me this has always seemed a bit formal, like providing a paper trail of what’s going on. I think what it really does is to make the conversation more tangible, with the agreed solutions being reinforced. And the follow-up conversation is of course really important – if the teacher has improved, then it’s time to discuss the improvement (who doesn’t love a positive conversation) and if the change isn’t made, this sets up an opportunity to discuss again.

I know I haven’t covered everything in this blog – firstly, it’s not my book, and secondly, these are my key ideas I’ve taken away. If this is something you struggle with I would really recommend buying it as this short blog can’t cover anything. What the books has done is made me feel much more confident in not only how to carry out the conversations, but also why I need to be carrying them out. That’s the really important thing, I think.


2 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s