As I approach retirement, I have been thinking about all I have learned during my career. One topic that comes to mind is what I characterize as crucial conversations. These are discussions where the two parties have differing opinions about a particular topic and something is at stake.
I spend most of each day interacting with others. These interactions may be one-on-one or in a group. I meet with students, parents, alumni, donors, faculty, and the Board, to name a few. Many meetings are straightforward with no significant differences of opinion. Those are easy. At other times there are differences of opinion. It is in these crucial, high-stakes conversations that my years of experience and my focus on all the various relationships at a school have taught me a lot. And while not every conversation or conflict has a clear and easy resolution, the advice I offer has served me well.
- Listen. Really listen. A proper discussion involves the mutual exchange of ideas. Each person should be listening to the other. I have observed too many conversations involving people who aren’t truly listening to each other. They are just waiting for their turn to talk. That’s not a conversation--that’s two separate monologues. And it’s not productive. There is no real communication happening. Those kinds of conversations rarely end well. I try to be curious about what the other person has to say, and that helps me listen carefully.
- I try to begin each conversation by emphasizing the many things both sides have in common. In fact, the things we agree about nearly always outnumber the few things about which we disagree. If I’m successful, then any differences of opinion are simply details that can be discussed in a cooperative, not competitive, way. A conversation shouldn’t be a power struggle with a winner and a loser. A productive conversation involves moving toward consensus.
- Related to what I said above, I always try to see the situation through the eyes of the other person. For example, if I’m talking with a parent upset about something going on with their child, I visualize being the parent of that child and experience what the current situation would feel like to them. Leading with empathy is the first step to better understanding a situation and working toward consensus.
I hope that some of these thoughts ring true to you. Truly listening, collaborating to reach a consensus, and showing empathy have helped me in my professional career. These are also skills we hope to instill in our students as we support them in developing good character and effective communication skills. Both will serve them well in school and life.
As always, thank you for being such a wonderful school community. Your support and belief in James River are so very much appreciated.