Leading change? Avoid debate

iStock_000010045687XSmallOne of the ABC’s of good educational leadership is that to get buy-in from faculty, it is vital to involve them in the process of change. Gathering input from staff, however, often means opening the door to their many frustrations and doubts.

In the September issue of Educational Leadership one newly appointed elementary school principal writes that while leading a transition to build instruction and assessment on curriculum standards one of the first lessons he learned was to stay away from debate.

“Unfortunately, debate–in which each participant argues his or her position against others’ positions–is the more common pattern in organizations. Each side competes to win, with each person focusing on listening to the other participants only to identify flaws in their presentation,” writes Eric Glover.

“Progress is seldom made, and the conversation ends where it begins. If there is a power differential–such as between principal and teachers–there is usually little competition: the participant with the most power wins.”

Glover says at the time that he embarked on the initiative, he happened to stumble on an article by communications consultant William Isaacs called “Dialogic Leadership” (1999). Isaacs identified three powerful conversational patterns: debate, dialogue and open discussion.

Debate, which Isaacs called “unproductive defensiveness,” often results in limiting rather than enhancing teacher empowerment, Glover writes.

“Unfortunately, principals often unknowingly use this style of interaction,” Glover says. “The other two practices, dialogue and open discussion, are much more likely to generate the teacher leadership that is essential for creating changes in schools.”

Participants in a conversation unconsciously choose whether to dialogue, discuss, or debate, Glover explains. If they choose to dialogue, they suspend their opinions and remain open to hearing what other people think; if they choose to discuss, they are openly examining the correctness of opposing assumptions on a given issue and are tough on the issues, not on each other.

Isaacs recommends four conversation practices that contribute to both dialogue and discussion:

  • deep listening
  • respecting others
  • suspending assumptions
  • voicing personal truths

“By infusing these practices into conversations, a leader can bring out the best in others– and coax out leadership potential,” Glover writes. He encouraged his staff to read Isaacs’ article and to use his recommendations as the ground rules for their conversation around building instruction and assessment on curriculum standards.

For him, he says, deep listening was the most difficult practice to learn. Typically, he had listened for ideas and suggestions that agreed with what he wanted to do instead of tuning in to the questions, concerns, and fears that teachers might express.

“I learned to respect teachers’ views as legitimate so that I could listen to the sense in what they were saying and recognize their words as expressions of their understanding of the truth,” he writes.

“Real Principals Listen,” by Eric Glover, Educational Leadership, September 2007, Volume 65, Number 1, pp. 60-63.

Published in ERN October 2007 Volume 20 Number 7

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