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Apply a little CPR to that relationship

Julie Thannum

Conflict is inevitable. Put two people together for any period of time, and they will find a way to disagree on something. It’s true of siblings. It’s true of spouses. It’s true of best friends.

It stands to reason that it will also be true for educators.

Relationships are messy. But they are worth the effort. A breakdown in dialogue can lead to ineffective teams. We must work to maintain open communication and address conflict that may arise.

After all, people are imperfect. We all make mistakes. People won’t always do or say what you want, how and when you think they should. Maintaining trust can be tricky when things don’t go the way you thought they should have gone. Still, finding mutual understanding and maintaining mutual trust is critical to success. Not addressing conflict as it happens can be a critical error in maintaining long-term healthy relationships.

Too often, we enter conflict thinking, “for me to win, you have to lose.”

It’s not surprising, then, that people let their emotions get in the way. When we don’t get what we want, we become irritable and fight–sometimes using childish tactics to help us achieve selfish goals. The blood rushes to our brain and we make a decision to dig in or dash out. We say all the wrong things at critical moments in our relationships or we run away from awkward interactions.

It’s time for educators to learn the art of holding a productive, crucial conversation.

What makes a conversation crucial? Three factors, according to the award-winning authors of Crucial Conversations–Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. They say a conversation turns crucial when there are 1) opposing opinions, 2) strong emotions, and 3) high stakes.  And at the very moment when you find yourself in a crucial conversation, you are likely to say all the wrong things. The relationship can take a direct hit.

New York Times bestselling authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler share helpful strategies to address conflict and restore mutual understanding.

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Most of us use coping skills that prolong or put off the pain. We avoid having conversations that could ultimately lead to restoring health to our relationships because it’s hard. It’s awkward. And we feel untrained. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good idea to wait until you have your emotions in check before engaging in dialogue that could cause the situation to deteriorate, but it’s equally important to address problems at the content level.

Nothing like a little “CPR” to jump start the conversation. Ask yourself, is the conflict due to a content, pattern, or relationship problem?  Handling conflict as soon as it happens–at the content level-means that you don’t wait until the concern becomes a pattern or negatively affects the relationship. Those conversations are way harder to have. Instead, deal with it in a timely and respectful manner the first time you experience the conflict.

Say you are a campus principal and you turn the corner on the first-grade hallway, only to find students standing outside their classroom door, which is still shut and locked, dark inside, five minutes after class was supposed to start. Their teacher can be seen scurrying up the sidewalk to the building, late and frazzled. You know this isn’t typical behavior. Something had to have happened; this just isn’t like her.

Ask most building principals how to handle the situation described above, and they are hesitant to even mention the tardy to the teacher. They express concerns about coming across too harsh or looking like a jerk when the teacher doesn’t have a history of being late. However, handling crucial conversations at the content level means you share facts and clearly articulate your expectations BEFORE they become a pattern.

Show respect, but provide clear expectations. “Wow, this is really rare for you. Is everything okay? It’s not like you to be late. You know how important it is not to have the children waiting in the hall without an adult. Let me unlock your door and let you get settled in, but when you can, please stop by my office so we can make sure we have a plan in the future. If you have something happen where you are going to be late, you need to contact me or a team member so we can be sure to have someone here to supervise your students until you arrive.”

See how easy that is?

Failing to have a crucial conversation at the content level means you have likely given the other person permission to continue or repeat the undesired behavior. This means they could easily develop habits or fall into a pattern of behavior that will trigger a negative, emotional response in you that could ultimately lead to broken relationships or long-term conflict. And then when you try to address it, you might hear back, “well it never seemed to bother you before!”

Find a way to share facts. Tell the other person how you are feeling and invite dialogue that restores understanding.

Relationships are messy; but they don’t have to stay that way. Deal with the conflict, apply a little “CPR” to the situation, and address the issue before it becomes a pattern or problem. You will find that people appreciate the direct, but understanding, way you don’t let things fester.

To learn more about Crucial Conversations skills, visit VitalSmarts.com.

What’s your approach to addressing conflicts between staff members? Do you tackle problems at the content level? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Julie Thannum
Julie Thannum, APR, is assistant superintendent for board and community relations at Carroll ISD in Texas and past president of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA).

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