The Conditions for Difficult Conversations

Head over to Google or Amazon and do a search for “difficult conversations” and you’ll quickly get the sense that people need a lot of help having them. Especially today when we are so fractured politically in the US and elsewhere. These days, it feels harder and harder to have an even somewhat congenial conversation about things that matter with your “loved ones” much less your boss or your co-workers.

For a lot of people, avoidance seems to be the go-to strategy, as in let’s just not talk about all of those things that ail us. Let’s just pretend that they’ll solve themselves without requiring us to have some tough dialogue or, with any luck, without requiring us to change our practice or lifestyles much if at all. (Read: climate change.)

Avoiding difficult conversations assumes, of course, that we acknowledge and accept that there are difficult conversations to be had. And I continue to get the sense in education circles that we either haven’t gotten to that point yet or that the conversations we are checking off aren’t’ the really “difficult” ones we need to be having.

And that’s because the really difficult ones are existential, not just practical.

My experience is that we’re more than willing to talk about “improving practice” or “outcomes” as long as those improvements are tweaks not wholesale twists. But when “improvement” moves toward something closer to reimagining the whole enterprise, things tend to get more sticky. Much more.

Stepping Out From the Past

Existential conversations cut to the heart of what we do. They force us to put centuries of legacy practice on some shared table space and ask “Should we still be doing this?” Or “Is this really what’s best for kids right now?”

Here are some existential conversation starters that come quickly to mind:

“We have to stop ranking and sorting students based on graded assessments because the research shows students are harmed more than helped by that practice.”

“Your first role as a teacher is not to be the content expert in the room any longer.”

“There is little permanence to what our students are learning. Too much is forgotten as soon as the test is over.”

“We’re not literate in the ways the modern world requires.”

“We need to transparently connect our practice and our classrooms to others around the world.”

“Every child needs access, but more importantly, every child needs agency along with that access.”

(Add your own below.)

What makes conversations around these and other topics difficult is not that they are intellectually out of reach of most anyone in education. As I’ve said many times, the greatest irony in all of this is that we know that much if not most of what we do in education defies common sense. And while we have varying degrees of clarity around the scale of change in the world today, most everyone agrees that the world is, in fact, changing. So, it’s not like we can’t engage in these discussions.

It’s more that we won’t. Because they are, after all, difficult.

They are difficult primarily because of the emotions they bring up. I know this is true of all of these types of conversations, in and out of education, by the way. But when we have a personal history attached to them as most educators do, it’s more difficult not to take them personally. When the conversations are focused on existential change, on the beliefs and norms and systems that we work in, it preys on our fears and insecurities. And, inherent in those types of changes is a profound sadness for what is being left behind.

I often (half) joke that educational leaders who are serious about enacting change have to become adept at grief counseling. If we’re really talking about change at an existential level, people will be grieving. In fact, one indicator of just how serious our conversations are is the sense of real discomfort that they elicit.

Culture + Contexts + Coherence = Conversations

So how do we engage in these difficult conversations in schools? What conditions are required for us to have them in ways that are meaningful and relevant?

First and foremost, there has to be a culture of respect and trust, one where everyone feels they are a valuable part of the community as a whole. Plunging into difficult conversations without a collective sense of connection, a sense that we’re all in this together, is bound to cause more problems than solutions. Without a track record of learning and creating and problem solving together, it’s exceedingly difficult to engage in ways that people feel safe to explore what might be beyond incrementalism.

Second, those expected to engage in those conversations have to have the capacity to do so in relevant ways. Again, I’m not talking about the intellectual capacity, which I believe most educators already have. I’m more concerned with the contextual capacity to see the world as it is today, how it operates, the challenges and opportunities that we all have in front of us. There’s no sense in engaging in conversations around change if the people involved aren’t all bringing a 21st Century reality to them.

But even more, I think for those conversations to be fruitful, there has to be a sense of coherence around what grounds our work in schools and what we aspire to. We write about this often, I know, but if we don’t have a deeply shared sense of mission, of values, of what learning is and how it happens in classrooms, how can we discuss serious issues around our work with students with any level of confidence that we’ll arrive at a destination that matters.

We’ve been putting off too many difficult conversations about schools for far too long. And now the world is forcing us to confront them regardless of whether or not we may be ready for them. In many ways, this moment is fraught with the realization that it’s going to continue to be difficult from here on out. It’s not going to get easier. We’ll never be done talking about any of these things as change accelerates beyond our capacity to keep up.

But just understand, the longer we wait, the more difficult they’ll become.

Don’t wait.



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2 thoughts on “The Conditions for Difficult Conversations”

  1. I really like the hard work that you are doing with the Modern Learners team. I have been alongside as you have grown over these last few years. And I’m sure that you feel many days that it’s just not enough and it’s hard to know what “enough” would look like. The current system continues to perpetuate itself as the cast of actors settle into well known roles.

    We have new tools and pathways for self-determined and meaningful, purposeful learning. One huge problem is that narratives are wired deeply into the brain, and practices that we know well have become “reality”, the simple facts of they way things are. Kids need to take more responsibility, be more organized, be more accountable… If only they would just comply things would be better. The problems of schools are seen by many as inevitable; we are just looking at human nature. We aren’t just asking people to do things differently, we are asking them to BE differently, to BE different characters in the stages we prance upon in the world. It’s improv. We are taking away the scripts. The actors feel naked without knowing where to stand and what to say and do.

    It’s terrifyingly emotional and with all our push for IQ, we have atrophied EQ. Many still instruct, “Suck it up.” Push your emotions down. We have gotten wiser and now admit the rise in mental illness, but we seem to ignore the context and conditions of the school environment that may have contributed to the illness. Difficult and fierce conversations with clear actions need to take place.

    In Culture Code, Daniel Coyle identifies three keys to culture from his research: build safety, share vulnerability and establish purpose. Seth Godin defines culture as “People like us do things like this.” I highly recommend Coyle’s book as he identifies us as the animals that we are and how we communicate with our bodies without being consciously aware. Can we change our actions to change who we are or do we need to change who we are to change actions? Can we do them simultaneously?

    This is not a cognitive journey. It’s emotional. It’s story and narrative. Stories will transform us. We need to hear the good and bad stories of learners succeeding and struggling within the larger school narrative. We need to listen. And together we need to write a new narrative from our successful learning stories.

    1. Lyn Hilt

      Thank you, Barry, and we’re happy to have you inside MLC!

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