Better Conversations

By John Ralston, IPLI Mentor and Principal at Perry Meridian Sixth Grade Academy

I have always considered myself a good communicator.  I try to be present in every conversation; I try to truly listen to others, see things from their perspective, and always try to avoid judging others or assuming I know their intentions.  Having been an administrator for 17 years, I thought this was one area I had mastered.  Then I was given a copy of the book Better Conversations by Jim Knight.  As I began reading the book and completing the activities in The Reflection Guide to Better Conversations, I quickly realized I had much work to do.

One of the most potent tools the author asks you to complete is to record a conversation you have with a colleague, friend, family member, etc., and then watch the recording and reflect upon what you see.  I decided to record a post-conference with a teacher after observing a lesson.  I discussed with the teacher why I wanted to record the conversation, and they agreed to participate.  When I viewed the recording, I focused on two of the ten habits the author views as instrumental to becoming a better conversationalist:

  • Listen – Through my actions and words, am I demonstrating that I am trying to see things from their perspective?  Am I listening to hear what they are saying right, or am I listening only to form my response, so the conversation goes in the direction I want?
  • Ask Better Questions – Are my questions meant to learn from or about the other person, or are they only to get the information I want?  Am I judgmental of their answers?  Do my questions open dialogue and foster trust?

After watching the recording, I realized that my listening skills were good but could be much better.  I saw several instances where I was not listening to what the other person said because I was formulating my response instead of truly listening.  I was also surprised to see that my body language during those instances was stiff and rigid compared to the rest of the conversation.  I was pleased with the questions I asked during the conference.  They were meaningful to the discussion and brought out information that helped me better understand the teacher and me.   It is always difficult to watch yourself, but the experience was precious to me, and I will make it a regular part of my professional growth. 

Having quality conversations that build trust and respect is, or should be every administrator’s goal.  I am grateful to IPLI for providing me with the Better Conversations book, as it has reminded me that no matter how long I have been an administrator, there is always room for growth.  We work with our staff and students on having a growth mindset, still being open to getting better.  This experience reminded me that I need to model that if I expect staff and students to embrace a growth mindset in my own life.