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Cultivating Healthy Communication in Teams

Here's an excerpt from Chapter 7 of The Art of Coaching Teams which was released on February 29!

When I ask educators to name their top challenges working with teams, I most often hear, "How do you stop one person from dominating the conversation?" I've encountered this challenge many times--as a participant in a team and a leader. Initially, I blamed the individual--Why doesn't he stop talking? Can't he see how much airtime he's taking up? How can he be so disrespectful? As a member of a team with a dominator, I looked to the leader to do something about the overtalker. Then I got frustrated with the leader when she didn't do anything. As the facilitator of a team, I worried that it was my responsibility to do something, and I wasn't sure what to do.

I've come to understand that the problem in this situation is the way we look at the problem, the way we identify the challenge. The overtalker is a symptom of the team's explicit or implicit communication agreements, nestled within a larger social agreements about who has a right to speak. We can't develop healthy communication without exploring the root cause of the dominant team member's behavior and without analyzing the context in which he or she is using so much airtime.

Rather than exerting power over someone and creating more rules and consequences, some strategies for responding to a dominant team member have transformational potential. If we take an inquiry stance, we are more likely to identify those strategies. These questions can prompt reflection on the challenge of an overtalker:

  • Why might that person talk so much? What does he need?
  • How might we help her become aware of the impact that her talking has on the rest of us and on our work together?
  • How does our broader social context support this person dominating conversations?
  • How have we allowed one person to dominate the conversation?
  • What does our team need to have good conversations?
  • When have we discussed this and shared our needs?
  • Have I been honest about expressing my needs?
  • What would it take for us to have good conversations?
  • Am I willing to take a risk and ask the questions that might shift how we communicate?

Simply by asking these questions, we're on new terrain.

[What follows is an excerpt from the serial called, "A Tale of Two Teams" that is sprinkled throughout the Art of Coaching Teams. It is the story of a humanities team that I coached many years ago].

"I have a question about working on rubrics that we'll probably never even use," Bess said. "I mean, we can't even get these kids to sit down in their chairs and hold a pen." She continued making a case for a discussion about student behavior, heading determinedly away from the plan I'd brought to work on rubrics. "Really," Bess said, "we should be talking about how to get these kids to walk in the hallways." Margaret chimed in, "I agree with Bess. That should be our priority for a discussion. Getting the boys to take their hoods off, to stop cussing, to stop running through the halls grabbing girls. Can you tell me when we're going to address these concerns?"

Bess and Margaret derailed meetings by asking questions that catapulted us far off course. It almost seemed as if they planned their synchronized questioning to forcibly shift our discussion away from their teaching practice and student learning and to argue the case that whatever it was that had been planned on the department agenda, or in the whole staff professional development, was the wrong thing to be doing.

In department meetings I tried controlling how much they spoke. One day I said, "You each get five pennies, and each time you speak you put a penny in the jar. When you're out of pennies, you don't get to participate anymore at our meeting today." This strategy simply resulted in lengthy soliloquies, their contributions now thicker with anger and frustration, their heels dug in even further. Glaring at them, I warned them silently that resistance was futile, and I drove onward to wear them down. We didn't discuss student writing on that day either.

In staff meetings, I tried the parking lot method. When someone raised a hand with a question, concern, or comment that was off topic, I'd ask her to please write it on the chart paper that was the parking lot. One after another, in almost constant succession, Bess and Margaret (as well as a handful of other teachers) moved back and forth between their tables and the wall with the parking lot. As page after page filled up, they sketched a parking garage around the posters. The parking lot came to physically, visually represent their ignored concerns, and was a new source of anger. "When will our parking lot questions be answered?" they'd demand.

Worn down, I finally went to the principal and insisted that he either attend our department meetings or remove Bess and Margaret from them. He denied my request, so it continued--this losing battle.

Using the above questions to reflect on the humanities team, I see Bess and Margaret's derailing questions in a new light: I acknowledge that they felt deep frustration because their concerns weren't heard in any formal structure, that they truly felt they couldn't engage in a discussion of their teaching practice while, in their perspective, things were out of control. I see that my response was to ignore those concerns and try and force them back onto the path I had set for our team.

I also recognize that I never raised this conversation dynamic directly with the team. While Bess and Margaret hijacked meetings, four other team members sat and watched and said almost nothing. I wonder what could have happened had I asked our team, "What does our team need to have good conversations?" and ensured that each person could speak. We had community agreements, but they weren't really working to promote good group conversations. In fact, Bess and Margaret evoked one of our agreements ("Speak your truth") every time they wanted to question the agenda. While they exploited this norm, other members rarely said anything, and I don't think I effectively invited them to do so.

Finally, I suspect that Bess and Margaret steered meeting discussions away from conversations about instruction because of their insecurities about their teaching practice. They had both taught for some years, and, based on my visits to their classrooms and what they shared in our meetings, they had significant gaps in their skill sets. On multiple occasions, one of the new teachers referenced a practice (e.g., using formative assessment or frontloading vocabulary), and Margaret's response indicated that she didn't understand. These two teachers had bounced around many schools in our district, not by their own choice, and I doubt they received good professional development. When I think about what I proposed on my ambitious agendas, I wonder if they recognized that their big gaps would be exposed. I wonder what might have happened if I'd designed agendas that would meet them where they were and that would scaffold up to a rigorous level.

What we say and how we say it usually reflect underlying emotions. Rather than trying to change the communication pattern--reduce overtalking, increase discussion--we can take a look at emotional intelligence, both an individual's EI and a team's. Conversations occur on three levels: there's what we're talking about (i.e., the content), then there's the other person's emotional response, and then there's your emotional response. If we want to have good conversations, we need to pay attention to all three levels.

When I recall conversations in the humanities team, the levels of emotions are now glaringly obvious. I was intensely frustrated with Bess and Margaret's behavior. They were frustrated with me and my agendas that didn't feel relevant. I spent so much energy trying to stifle their emotions, and I wonder what might have happened had I addressed this. I could have said something like, "I hear that you're really frustrated by student behavior. How about if we carve some time out of our agenda to problem solve together? I could also help you plan to bring these concerns to the school's administration. And then can we agree to spend the rest of our meeting time discussing what's on the agenda?" I suspect that such a response might have shifted the dynamics that otherwise felt like a battle.

Excerpt from The Art of Coaching Teams, by Elena Aguilar, Jossey-Bass, 2016.

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