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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tips to Overcome Conversation Malfunction

Talking in the evening. Porto Covo, PortugalImage via Wikipedia
mostly written Saturday, Sept 25
Conversation Malfunction
Boy, I'm shocked and upset.  Not really sure how this happened, but one reason I love disqus is that it sends comments to my email box and I reply to the comment and it approves the comment and the posts my response. It makes conversation easy!

Well, I've had a little trouble signing into disqus and this morning as I sit here in the lobby of the Hampton Inn waiting to go to the Georgia Tech ballgame at noon, I am doing what I do when I go on vacation -- conversations on my blog.

So, I decided to log into disqus directly and make sure I hadn't missed anything! Well, it looks like disqus somehow did not receive and process my responses for the last three weeks and I had almost 100 comments in there!Upsetting!
If You're Not Seeing Conversation: Ask Yourself Why
So, I'd been wondering where the conversations had gone! There just weren't as many conversations happening. So, I'm glad that I went to disqus to see and hope that being up front with you will let you know that I value your comments and time!

I think that administrators of anything need to ask themselves why.

Why is no one coming into my office?  
Why is no one bringing things to me?  
Why do I hear about problems after everyone else already knows?
If conversation isn't happening with the key stakeholders in your school and you are an administrator - there is a reason why!

Functional Reasons?

There may be a functional reason:
  • Your assistant may be inadvertently giving out wrong "vibes" to those who try to set appointments.
  • You may not have time scheduled in your calendar for the conversations to happen.
  • You may have to seek out appointments and times with people with whom you need to keep good relations.
  • You may be sending off wrong body language that makes people afraid of interrupting you.
Bigger Reasons?
There may also be other reasons that should concern you more:
  • Your staff may have withdrawn from you and is disenfranchised.
  • Your staff may think you don't care.
  • Your staff may be unsupportive or feel dis-included.
  • Your staff MAY even genuinely like you and be concerned about all of the stress in your life so they try not to bother you.
Tips for Administrators on Promoting Conversation
I used to be a manager of a large cellular phone market and these were the things that best helped situations when I felt communication was breaking down:
  • Set Appointments to Listen.

    I had my assistant write everyone's name on a paper and set an appointment with a certain number each month so that by the end of the year I would have met with every staff member. Then, it started over. Sometimes the best cost savings came from a suggestion from the janitor. 

    The Content. This was not  a performance review and was not my turn to talk (until the end.) I listened, took notes, and asked questions.

    The Close. If  had a current emphasis, if appropriate, at the end, I always told them what an important member of the team that they were and told them that I knew I was busy and stretched thin but I wanted them to know if they had an issue to ask for an appointment and I would make it happen and that our goal was to be the leader in the market - no exceptions - we were going to be the leanest, friendliest, and best cell phone market in south Georgia!

    Morale improves when people feel listened to.  Now, superintendents may have to take a different approach and there are lots of staff members, but this is important. Listen.

  • Have Agenda-less Interactions

    If people always think that you have a reason, an agenda for speaking with them, they are distrustful of you when you come around.  Intentionally take time to just "be there" and converse with people who are around. I know you're busy, but sometimes you have to be a human being not just a human doing.

    In fact, most management books I've read state that the best managers have a genuine interest in their people. Take time to relate to your staff as humans. Laugh with them.  There is a reason the One Minute Manager Works - just walking around, interacting, and responding as things happen has influence.

  • Laugh at Yourself
    I know a person right now who is so uptight and so unable to laugh. Not someone I want to be around.

    This week I walked into the hall and saw a huge box with fluorescent lights in it.I saw some students snickering in the hall as they walked by. 

    When I looked at the box The light said "Glass - Handle It With Care" - however, the mailing label had been stuck squarely over the "GL" of the box.  I ran in the office and said.

    "Coach Ross. We have an x - rated box of light bulbs in the hall."

    We all laughed hilariously. Oh my goodness, we got a good one out of that. What was funniest is that I'm a pretty straight arrow and they thought it was hilarious that I was the one who found it.  I laughed too - it was so funny. 

    I know some teachers (not at my school) who would have gone to the front office with a prudish distressed look on their face to "report" the janitor for having a bad word in the hall.  Get over yourselves.  Laugh every day and laugh at yourself. It makes you human.

  • Be Efficient.

    I become hugely distressed when I meet with someone who is making promises to me and doesn't write a one down. I know that those promises will be buried in the graveyard of good intention.  Write things down or put into your organization system so you can act upon them.

  • Be Concise
    You tell teachers to change up things every 20 minutes. Realize that if you talk for more than 5 minutes that your teachers are thinking about what they are going to cook for dinner, that student situation that has them upset, or what they wish you'd do instead of talking while no one is listening? Of course, two or three will hang on your word and listen to every word and give you lots of positive reinforcement!

    Watch the guy "who falls asleep" as you speak.
    In the new essays just released from Mark Twain. Who is Mark Twain?  He talks about how he reads his books to a wide group of people but that the one he listens to most is the "guy who always falls asleep" because if he can keep him awake for more than 15 minutes then he's got a winner of a novel.

    (Kindle Loc 289 Mark Twain - clicking that link will open up Kindle and take you to that location if you have downloaded the book. It was free last time I checked.)

    Keep your eyes on "the guy who always falls asleep" -- that is your litmus test for the boring, unengaging factor.

    Rehearse your opener.
    If you're holding a meeting, I think you should rehearse your opener like you would a regular presentation. It is very important to communicate well with your team - chose the content of your opener and first five minutes well as that is all you're guaranteed to have.

    Many administrators start out of the gate with mindless chit chat and have lost the room before they get to the point. As a result, meetings don't cause action or inspiration.

  • Hold "Standing Meetings"

    Many administrators justify their existence through meetings.

    Meetings, if run poorly are one of the biggest wasters of time and resources in existence in the education system today.

    Meetings if run well are one of the biggest leveragers of time and resources in existence in the education system today.

    My husband is the engineering manager of one of the largest manufacturing plants in South Georgia and he holds daily standing meetings with about 20 of his staff.  Each person gives a brief 1 minute overview - here is what I'm doing, here are my obstacles, and here is what I need from you.

    My husband emerges 7 minutes later with an action list of what he can do to help his staff. He has a total of 140 people under his management but this one tool helps him do what he can do best: remove obstacles and cast vision for where they need to go.

    Hold STANDING meetings. Make your meetings more efficient. If people are finding every excuse to miss your meetings it is usually because they feel like the meetings are a waste of time.

  • Keep contextual lists.

    I used to keep a list of the meetings I'd be holding and each time someone brought me an issue for that meeting, I'd put it on the list for that meeting. Wherever possible, I'd let that person or someone else communicate it. Don't rely on your overtaxed brain.

    That one tiny announcement that you forgot may disenfranchise a key opinion leader on your staff. Details like this are important and your meetings are essential.  I keep a list of what to talk about at faculty meetings. We hold them early and I'm usually groggy and need the reminder.

    Keep lists for each meet in your planner or in evernote and add to them as people mention what needs to be there.

  • Lead

    Leadership is so very important. If you make excuses -- so will your staff. If you use time poorly - so will they. If you whine -- they will too. You set the stage. Lead by example.
Promoting Conversations From the Bottom Up
This to the staff members. Teachers, IT directors, staff, paraprofessionals, and sometimes parent volunteers - we need to promote conversations with our busy administrators that are productive and helpful.
Functional Reasons?
The conversations with your administrator may not be happening for functional reasons:
  • You may not be prepared for meetings you do have and ramble on incessantly about a litany of issues without getting to the point.
  • You may just "feel upset" and not have a clear, concise item that you are asking for.
  • You may ask for meetings all of the time and the administrator leaves them feeling drained, down, and hopeless because you presented no solutions.
Serious reasons you're not getting an audience?
Or there may be other, more serious reasons that your administrator may not be conversing with you:
  • You may be labeled. Your administrator may have "labeled" you because of the "company you keep" (do you hang out with the whiners and have guilt by association?) or because of a bad interaction you've had in the past.
  • You may be too quiet. You have to be persistent and doggedly determined to bring attention to the issues that are important. Some teachers cannot get appointments because they are not vocal, self-advocates who speak out. They'd rather quit than "rock the boat."
  • Your administrator may think you don't like him/her.
  • You may not know how to be a good self advocate.
Tips for Teachers on Promoting Conversation 
  • When you get the meeting use the time wisely. 

    The more "important" the person you're meeting with the more time you should spend preparing.  Be able to succinctly spell out the issue in a professional way. Ask Advice. Propose solutions. Don't vent.

    Rehearse. Be ready. Set a goal to take LESS time than you planned - this will get you an entrance next time.

  • Prepare an agenda

    I type a list of what I have to discuss with my boss and for items that need "yes/no" answers, I put a checkbox for yes no. He has a copy and I have a copy. When I leave 5 minutes later, he puts this in his file and he knows that we've accomplished 10 things.

  • Have Clarity.
    Know what you want out of a meeting. Have it crystal clear. WE all have a laundry list but if you decide to wash the laundry, your administrator will begin avoiding you.

  • Provide Positive Reinforcement.

    As a former "boss" myself it is a lonely job. If your administrator does something positive - anything positive, say thank you. They will know you're on their side and don't "hate them." Just make it honest.

  • Be honest.

    AS a boss, I was always wary of those who always agreed with me. I respected those who knew how to state their point and positively state why they disagreed with me. Good managers seek a variety of opinions. If you can succinctly give your perspective, you become valuable, needed, and an insider on opportunities to the ethical, wise administrator who seeks to avoid "groupthink."

  • Communication skills.

    Read books like "How to Win Friends and Influence People" or "How to Get Your Point Across in 30 seconds or less".  Brevity and powerful communication is a challenge for most of us teachers, me included. But these books improve things for me.
Learn to Open Up the Lines of Communication
Conversations need to happen. We are all busy. We all have preconceived notions. It is time to move ahead and learn. Here are some of the tips that help me. Please feel free to share your tips for opening up communication.
If All Else Fails
If all else fails -- READ A BOOK on the subject. here are a few of mine that have helped me.
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