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Embracing solutions to fight negativity

In a perfect world, every school leader would make the right choices for students and families. And the only feedback we’d ever receive is praise.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. And, more often than not, the feedback we receive from staff and community members comes in some form other than praise. Not that we don’t receive praise. But, you know what they say about complaints…

Fortunately, negative feedback isn’t always a bad thing.

Oftentimes, it illustrates where we’ve gone wrong, what students, parents, and teachers think we’re overlooking, and how we can improve.

The problem is that not all feedback is constructive.

If you’ve worked in schools for any amount of time, chances are you’ve bumped into a community member whose feedback is consistently negative, and who, for whatever reason, isn’t interested in finding a solution.

When you do hear from stakeholders with this kind of reputation, the default reaction is sometimes to dismiss their feedback, or ignore it entirely.

But that’s not always a good idea, writes former principal and education leader Eric Sheninger. While it’s easy enough to ignore consistently negative feedback, Sheninger says it’s better if you work to turn naysayers into positive contributors.

Of course, getting people to change isn’t always easy. But it can be done, says Sheninger. He offers this approach.

Force solutions
“The secret to dealing with negative people is to make them part of the solution by not allowing them to continually be part of the problem,” writes Sheninger on his blog. “Giving up on these people is not an option.”

In the same way that the squeaky wheel usually gets the grease, the loudest complainers usually get the most attention. Add social media to the mix and the drumbeat of negativity can often drown out meaningful conversations about productive solutions.

To the contrary, when dealing with negative comments from parents or from staff, Sheninger recommends positive reinforcement, stronger professional development and training, more time and resources allocated specifically to resolving issues, and encouraging feedback. Though he acknowledges that attempting to train away negativity rarely works.

Instead, Sheninger offers a simpler solution, inspired by Jon Gordon’s book The No Complaining Rule. The idea: for every potential complaint that hits your inbox, ask the complainer to propose two solutions.

As a principal, Sheninger implemented this idea with his staff: “As leaders we must create the conditions for staff to be honest and open about professional issues,” he writes in a description of his approach. “We must then encourage and sometimes challenge them to share practical solutions to the problem and listen intently.”

Incubate solutions
It’s easy enough to require teachers and staff members to proffer solutions as a matter of policy, it’s harder to encourage this type of exchange among community members, such as parents.

But not impossible.

By setting ground rules online and in public meetings, you can begin to encourage the members of your community to listen to each other and to engage in conversations about solutions, not problems.

If your social media accounts, email inboxes, online forums, or in-person meetings have become veritable dumping grounds for complaints, it’s not too late to transform these forums into solutions incubators.

Have you thought about a solution-only twitter hashtag or live chat, for example? What about a mandatory field on your next school climate or parent or staff engagement survey that asks respondents to provide open-ended answers, including potential solutions to defined problems in your schools?

What steps do you take as a leader to acknowledge staff and community members alike when they contribute to solutions in your schools?

Whatever your approach, it’s important to encourage constructive conversations around viable solutions. Let your community know you’re listening to their thoughts and that you are actively using their ideas to inform your decisions.

Looking for a better way to start a productive, solutions-driven conversation with the members of your school community? Here’s one way to start that conversation.