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Speak Up or Burn Out: Five Crucial Conversations that Drive Educational Excellence

A Few Tips to Get the Conversations Started

Teachers who fight the natural human tendency to respond to stress by retreating from action and relationships can do a lot to keep stress from building into burnout.


About the Author






David Maxfield is coauthor of the New York Times bestseller, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. He is also a sought-after speaker and consultant, and leading researcher at VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance.

These five crucial conversations that drive educational excellence can be tricky to navigate. Sharing concerns with a school leader, confronting a poorly performing colleague, and dealing with an unsupportive parent all require skill. We've spent thousands of hours watching what teachers and other professionals do to succeed in those dicey moments. Below are a few approaches that will reduce your stress and increase your chance of a good outcome.


Don't wait until you're angry.
Less skillful people put off handling crucial issues until they are fit to be tied. For example, an assistant principal has been on your case about an important student testing issue for weeks. Your patience is diminishing. You feel unappreciated, blamed and defensive. Now is not the time to talk, but unfortunately, it's in those emotionally charged moments that most people finally speak up. The time to talk is when you see the problem emerging and have not yet become emotionally vested. Stop putting off addressing those issues and you'll start dealing with them when they're emotionally manageable.

Ask the humanizing question.
When confronting a colleague who's not pulling his or her weight, don't open your mouth until you've opened your mind. When others let us down we make matters worse by villain-izing them in our minds. We might tell ourselves that they are selfish, egotistical, lazy, and so on. Sometimes those judgments happen so quickly we aren't even conscious of them. If you find yourself losing patience with the person with whom you need to have a crucial conversation, that is a sign you need to change your view of that person before starting to talk. Turn him or her from a villain into a human by asking yourself, "Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do what he or she is doing?" When you see someone as a human with a flaw rather than a villain with no soul, you'll approach that person far more effectively.

Start with safety.
Begin your crucial conversation by finding common ground. Demonstrate respect for the other person. Point out goals and interests the two of you share. When you do that before diving into a deep discussion of the problems, you create a condition of safety that enables healthy dialogue. When you fail to do that, you commonly provoke defensiveness. Creating safety is the key skill for succeeding at crucial conversations. Teachers who do it best build healthy relationships they can draw on when under stress.

Eliminate excuses.
In our study, Silence Kills, we found that the most common reason nurses don't hold crucial conversations is that they tell themselves, "It's not my job." The same trend can be applied to teachers. For example, a teacher appears incompetent at her duties. A teacher who sees a colleague's problem most clearly is in the best position to give her helpful feedback. But he doesn't. Why? Because it's not his job. Interestingly, it isn't just teachers who tend to make that excuse for not speaking up. Administrators, district managers, and just about everyone found a way to rationalize away their responsibility to speak up. Those who are best at holding crucial conversations don't consider whether it's in their job description to speak up; they consider whether it's in their interest to voice their concerns. Consequently, they tend speak up far more frequently.


Read More

Be sure to read all four parts of “Speak Up or Burn Out: Five Crucial Conversations that Drive Educational Excellence,” David Maxfield’s series on avoiding teacher burnout.
* Part 1: Running Toward the Fire
* Part 2: Unsupportive Leaders and Failing Teachers
* Part 3: Uncooperative Colleagues, Unsupportive Parents, and Students With Discipline Problems
* Part 4: A Few Tips to Get the Conversations Started

Dialogue, don't monologue.
Finally, the most skillful teachers we studied have a different goal in their crucial conversations. The less skillful come at the conversation as though it's a monologue. Their goal is to speak their minds, and their hope is that the other person is committed to hearing them. That ego-centric approach to crucial conversations inevitably provokes defensiveness, eventually convincing the teacher it was a waste of time to even try. Teachers who seek out dialogue experience the reverse. When they come to the conversation willing to share their views, but also sincerely interested in the perspective of others -- in fact, intensely curious about others realities -- they frequently experience what they enact. Their openness invites openness in others. Their willingness to be wrong makes it safe for others to admit to shortcomings. When your goal is dialogue rather than monologue, your crucial conversations lead to mutual learning rather than dueling defenses.

The environment in our schools is not likely to become less stressful in the near future. In fact, we might see an increased level of stress. The good news is that teachers who fight the natural human tendency to respond to stress by retreating from action and relationships can do a lot to keep stress from building into burnout. Regularly engaging in healthy crucial conversations that strengthen relationships, improve teamwork, and influence positive change can be enormously helpful, not only in avoiding being consumed, but also in restoring much of the meaning and joy that attracted teachers to education in the first place.

Return to Part 1: Running Toward the Fire.

See all four parts of David Maxfields series, Speak Up or Burn Out: Five Crucial Conversations that Drive Educational Excellence.


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