Jennifer Abrams joins Justin Baeder to discuss her book Having Hard Conversations.
Interview Notes, Resources, & Links
About Jennifer Abrams
Jennifer Abrams is an independent educational consultant who provides trainings, coaching, program design and consultative support to schools, and other organizations in the areas of:
- New employee support
- Supervision and evaluation
- Having hard conversations
- Being generationally savvy and
- Creating collaborative cultures.
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Jennifer, welcome to Principal Center Radio!
Jennifer Abrams: Pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Justin: Jennifer, could you tell us about your professional work and what led you to write this book?
Jennifer: I was an English teacher, a high school English teacher, for a number of years, and went into working with new teachers. In the state of California, we call it the Beginning Teachers’ Support and Assessment Program. I spent a number of years supporting and coaching new teachers. What I was noticing, particularly with principals, is during evaluations, during moment of supervision people were not finding their voice around what really mattered in a way that the teachers that I was working with could listen to or could hear or could make change.
I started really looking at how challenging it is to speak to a colleague, to speak to a supervisee, to speak to a peer. I started creating work shops around that. It ultimately formed into having hard conversations, which is extended now beyond supervision, into collaborative conversations and work with classified and work outside our field of education, as well.
It’s been a really amazing journey trying to help people find their voice around what matters.
Justin: I think it’s such important work, because we’ve all been told that we need to have managerial courage. We need to muster up the will power to go and confront someone when they need it. I think we don’t pay enough attention to making sure that that message gets heard.
I was very fortunate early on in my career as a principal to work with some really terrific people like Yarrow Durbin, from Washington Courage and Renewal, to really learn how to talk to other people in a way that they can hear, that establishes the relationship and gets the message across in a constructive way.
Jennifer: I completely agree with you instead. How did you stand relationship with somebody? How do you do something that’s constructive?
My frame around that is “how can you be both humane and growth producing during the conversation so that the person can hear you and knows what to do to move forward?” Those are the two biggest challenges for administrators to be dealing with in such a busy world that they inhabit.
Justin: I think that’s a great framing of what a hard conversation is. Based on your experience, where do we tend to go wrong? When we get into these conversations, what do we tend to do to mess things up so that either the relationship is damaged or the message doesn’t get heard?
Jennifer: I think even from the get-go, before one begins to consider having a hard conversation, you need to determine whether you’ve been clear about the expectations that you are working with or under, in a group, in teacher expectations, in project, deliverables.
Whatever it is, you’re talking to your main office secretary in any organization, you’re talking to anybody, what do they think they’re doing? At which time do they need to be doing it? So that there is clarity of expectation from the beginning.
Then, the hard conversation has a foundation upon which to even take place. That’s way before (we hope) the hard conversation even occurs.
Justin: I think that’s hard, because sometimes, when we feel we need to initiate one of those conversations, we think “they should just know. Why is this not common sense to the other person when it’s so obvious to me that this should not happen?”
Jennifer: Yes, I think that is such a common response during the work that I do in workshops and in coaching is. “How could not they know this? Do I really need to spell this out? I can’t believe they don’t already understand what being a “professional” is. What is with this new generation?”
It could be about lots of things. It just make me giggle. I’m not unaccustomed to hearing that. I just wrote a blog, a guest blog on this: clarity of expectations before accountability.
That really isn’t going to stop you from having a hard conversation. It just really grounds people. They have to think through things that they might not have presumed they needed to articulate and really make peace with.
You’re right—common sense may not be “common.” We need to be clear with everybody. I think that is a leader’s job in many ways, is to continue to state where we’re going, what we hope we can do for children, what are expectations are for the instruction and the social emotional supports that we’re going to be putting into the classrooms…clarity is critical even before you start the hard conversation.
Justin: Take us into the next steps, then. Once we’ve established some clear expectations, and we’ve recognized that we’re in a situation where these expectations aren’t being met, what do we do? Walk us through that.
Jennifer: You have to think before you speak. What I suggest is that you really make a couple of things clear to yourself.
Have I been clear? Number one. Do I need to make some choices? There are a lot of questions you need to ask yourself. Am I in a space to hear this? Are they in a space to do this? We’re not doing it in a parking lot, on a Friday afternoon.
When I have this conversation, two things: One, how can I say it without trigger words that will alienate them from the beginning? How can I help them understand what could be next instead of what the behavior is in the present? One of them is about the humane part of the conversation. The other part is the growth-producing piece. I think I go first to the growth-producing.
What do you want to see instead of what you’re seeing? How clear can you be about that? What supports might you actually provide, if that is something that you could be accountable for on your end?
Once you know what the hard conversation needs to be about (Which frankly, isn’t as easy for people to do as it sounds—that’s a real thinking moment: What do you want to have a hard conversation about? How have you aligned it to what they already think is on their plate, number one) and then, how might I say it so it really doesn’t alienate or trigger somebody?
Those are the two key pieces when I work with people. Some people are very much, “Oh, I really need to critically think about the ‘what.'” A lot of other people have that down, and it’s the “how.” It depends on who you are and who the person is, where you are and what time it is in the day, the year, that you fall into “Oh, I better be doing a little bit more strength training or focus on this particular part.”
Justin: One thing I want to highlight that I really appreciate it from the book is the chapter on is finding the professional language to name what you’re talking about.
Jennifer: Yes, I spend a lot of time working with administrators. In reviewing the wording that has been placed in standards that they use in their districts or in their schools and finding words that are aligned with those standards that are neutral, that are clear, so that people can really articulate something in a way that is about the work, and not per se about the individual.
We’ve all agreed management is a priority. We’ve all agreed that this type of instructional practice is what we’re going to focus on.
Stay as clean as you can get around professional language that you’ve already all agreed to. It becomes a third point, in a way. “Third point” is a phrase that Michael Grinder and Bruce Wellman and Bob Garmston always use. It’s not a personal thing.
If I’m talking to you, Justin, I’m not talking to you, I’m point one, you’re point two. It’s about the profession. It’s about the third point, the standards we have. We can use that common language—not just in a hard conversation—so that when it comes to a hard conversation, it’s a normal way of how we discuss the work that we’re all about.
Justin: Absolutely. I think there’s a tendency when we take ourselves and our work very seriously, there’s a tendency for us to see ourselves as the guardians of what needs to happen for kids. I think it’s easy to be a little bit too insensitive to other people’s commitment to those third points and those shared goals and values when we see that there’s a problem and we say, “Hey, you’re not living up to what to me as an obvious expectation.”
I really like that you’re anchoring all of those expectations in something that’s outside of the school leader or the person doing the confronting. It’s something that’s a shared destination.
Jennifer: I think it’s a beautiful way of saying it. It’s a sense of shared expectations of values and goals. It’s out there, it isn’t personalized. It isn’t something I only own, that I have my judgment on. You are not doing what I think is wrong. It is about what’s right for students. What the school, the district, the group has agreed to is the best practice to support children.
If we put it out there and I know you can’t see me right now, because we’re just going on audio, I have my hand outside. I’m pushing it out. It’s about the work, way out there, so that we’re all working on it on a shared way with a shared purpose.
Justin: So obviously, this is a leadership practice that takes some skill and for each conversation it takes a little bit of time to plan that out.
Could you tell us a little bit about why we tend to not have these conversations when we need to and what happens when we don’t?
Jennifer: There are so many reasons—intentions that we have around having a hard conversation that are personal to us at our very normative across human beings. I speak to that in the book—I did a bunch of qualitative research, AKA interviews with people, where I said, “What really stops you from speaking up?”
It could be anything from past history of people yelling and people don’t want to deal with that, to current situations of timing and “I just don’t have a bunch of time” to mistrust of the other person and where they are in their lives and their ability to even hear it. There are other honest, really true things that people will say to me.
“It’s on my plate but it’s not as urgent as other things for me right now. I got other priorities I gotta deal with. What if the person goes on stress leave?” There are so many factors that go into it.
But I really do believe that we need to become more intrapersonally intelligent. We need to know what our common tensions and hesitations are, then say to ourselves, “Are these really in concrete? Are these absolutes?” The question is, no they’re not. How could we strategically and conscientiously move past our hesitations in order to do what’s right for students?
People will say to me “The work that goes in to this is so unrealistic, Jennifer. I can’t put the time in.” I smile and say, “How long have you had the problem?” They say, “Oh, six months, five years. It’s just not realistic for me to really be as strategic and as thoughtful as you expect us to be.”
I say, “You just told me that you’ve been dealing with this for six months. Do you not think that you have vented about this in the parking lot for five minutes on a Friday? Do you not think that you have discussed this with your colleagues at a team meeting for 10 minutes? Do you not think it’s kept you up at night for an hour when you’ve witnessed something that you did not speak to? My guess is you put in a significant time already. It just wasn’t productive. It wasn’t moving the ball forward. We’ve gotta actually put ourselves in a seat and think and have the managerial courage that you just mentioned to find our voice around what matters to students.”
Justin: Now, I have to say one of the things that really appealed to me about the book was that it’s written to not necessarily rely on managerial authority, and I think a lot of the examples that you give in the book would work even when there’s no supervisory relationship at all.
Could you talk about the peer accountability component?
Jennifer: Absolutely. I was a teacher on special assignment. I have worked in peer to peer relationships where I hoped that I have influence on my colleagues and they do on me. That we work with each other, because we have great trust and respect for each other.
It is not supervisorial. It is not evaluative. People will often say to me “But it’s not my job to have a hard conversation. That’s for the guy or gal with the name plate on their office. They have a business card. They get paid the big bucks to do this.”
I respectfully disagree with them and I say, “If you are in a school, or in an educational organization working on behalf of students, it is your collective responsibility—every single one of you—to speak up around what matters, regardless of title, regardless of role.”
We cannot wait for the principal to come to the PLC or to the team meeting to handle something that is not his or her responsibility. It is the team, the grade level’s responsibility, as adults.
If we’re over the age of 18 and we’re trying to model for the students, how people communicate humanely and in productive ways with one another, we have to practice that. It cannot be only the principal who does this.
People put their heads down and they get kind of “Yes, you’re right.” It takes us growing up. I have to be the adult in the organization and I cannot run to my boss to have that happen. That in and of itself is challenging and yet very helpful to move forward all the good work that we need to be doing for kids.
Justin: Absolutely. There are so many things that happen within say, a team meeting context or a peer-to-peer context that if you did report it to your supervisor, kind of have the principal go and talk to the person about it for you,
that might deal with it, but that also escalates it. It’s not a problem that should be tolerated. It’s not a problem that needs to continue, but it needs to be handled at the level where it’s occurring. Peer confrontation is so powerful when it’s done right.
Jennifer: I completely agree, and I say…we don’t need, and this is my story, it might be a little bit candid and you can make choices about how you choose to look at it…Going to mommy and daddy, AKA the principal or some type of supervisor to handle situations is not OK. We need to grow up. We need as adults in schools to model what that looks like.
I would often suggest to people when they’d come to me and say, “Can you help me with this?” I’d say, “Thank you for coming to me. I’m happy to help you do this on your own. I don’t want to fix it for you. I don’t want to come in for you. I’m not going to have the conversation for you. I want to help you have the conversation that you need to have.”
People feel very good when they actually stand up for what they need to, but it’s a very scary prospect for some people and when I help people stand up straight and find their voice around what matters, it’s a very empowering and positive thing for a teacher, especially talking to his or her colleague.
Justin: I appreciate the wealth of examples and templates and activities in the book that can equip people to have those conversations well.
If people want to get in touch with you directly and maybe talk about having you come or just learn more about what you do, where can people find you online?
Jennifer: I have a website, www.jenniferabrams.com, and my contact information is at the bottom of that home page along with additional information about the book and other resources and then if you are a Twitter follower I am @jenniferabrams, all one word, and you can contact me there, as well.
Justin: Fabulous. Thank you so much, Jennifer. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you today, and I really appreciate you coming on Principal Center Radio.
Jennifer: Thank you so much for having me.
Justin: High performance instructional leaders—what did you take away from my interview with Jennifer Abrams on Having Hard Conversations?
One thing I really appreciated that Jennifer said was, we need to have the expectation that as adults, we’re willing to have these conversations with one another. We’re not going to kind of go running to mom and dad. And in your school you probably are the mom or dad, so to speak.
We want those issues to be handled at lowest level possible, because that’s where they stay less complicated; they are less hurtful; and they’re easier to resolve.
One thing I want to encourage you to do is invest some time in training your staff how to have these conversations with other people. You can do that with a variety of different books. And Having Hard Conversations is an excellent one, because it’s so focused on the work of teachers and having those peer conversations. It gives you very specific examples to follow.
But whatever you do make it a priority, because this is something that’s going to shape the culture of your school in a dramatic way.
If you can have every single person in your school solving problems on a day-to-day basis by having these necessary conversations with their colleagues, that’s hundreds of problems that are being addressed constantly that you don’t have to deal with—and you don’t even have to know about—in order for them to get fixed.
Get your staff on board with this process of being adults, of being courageous and of keeping each other accountable to those shared commitments that you have in your school.