Leverage – co-creating change for students when they are stuck…

Crucial conversations skills…Do you fall into the trap of operating like a sand martin, skimming the surface?  Here’s how you can bring some kingfisher energy when you’re trying to help someone make progress when they’re stuck.

Wise owl…

As the mild weather brings a foretaste of spring, my mind is looking ahead to time with family and friends on the river, canoeing. Where I live, there are some great routes to take. A memorable one is the incredible twists and turns of the Wye as it cuts its winding way around the rocks to Symonds Yat.

If you’re lucky, in the stillness of a river which in the main shuns the roadside, you get glimpses of wildlife that are a major reward for the graft of all that paddling. About half way to Symonds Yat is a sandy cliff that forms the banks of the Wye. It’s pock-marked with holes where Sand Martins nest. You don’t notice these at first. What you see are lots of little birds swiftly crossing and recrossing the river, flying so low to the surface of the water, taking sips in less than the blink of an eye as they go. These guys are predictable, they are always there. It’s a landmark on the journey to stop and watch, cider in hand…

If you’re really lucky, you might detect a flash of shocking blue and the red/pink breast of the Kingfisher on the way down into and out of the water. Incredibly, only really visible when in flight despite it’s punk plumage. The precision of its flight and speed is such that it can emerge from the depths in exactly the point of impact, prey in beak. You rarely see these guys in action. You rarely see them at all. But when you do, it’s breath-taking.

And this is the contrast I aim to get at when it comes to training people about how to have conversations that matter. You can’t be fishing around in the depths forever. It’s not like you’re Sigmund Freud. But what is full of impact, is when you let a question land, hold the space for the person you’re with to reflect and take on some accountability for what’s going on…And you can do this skilfully in bite-sized ways that can really make a difference.

What gets in the way or orienting someone to engage with change?

  • Our anxious brains see the threat and we go into ‘fix-it’ mode
  • We over-empathise with their struggle – especially in working with young people and so we feel activated to do something.
  • It feels productive to problem solve for them and we over-engineer the content so that we get compliance or appeasement rather than collaborative engagement.
  • We think they’re on the same page as us when they say ‘yes’ to our action plan. They aren’t

….and voila – groundhog day. Back to the procrastination, perfectionism, acting out, avoiding, diverting…As educators we have skimming conversation with our pupils for a reason. It feels productive. It reassures us that we have taken action. We did our best…

And here’s the rub. Doing OUR best, isn’t really the issue. It’s nice, but it’s not actually what we’re paid for. When we are being really effective as teachers, we are getting the kids to bring their best.

Change is difficult. Even when the rational mind can see it’s beneficial. Where changing habits are concerned it’s hard. And the kids we support who are struggling in our subjects have the habit of mind that they can’t do it. The kids who are making our colleagues pull their hair out with their late work don’t actually intend on serially disappointing their teachers. There are a myriad of ways that young people self-sabotage their path to flourishing right the way through the ability range.

Crucial conversations that ‘skim it’…

  • Spend more time on the ‘what’ happened, how many times, and to what effect. The evidence from the mark book or database…
  • Time travel to the consequences of the behaviour
  • Present a plan of action that the young person passively has to agree to.

Crucial conversations that can bring something up from the weeds:

  • Know that the young person can’t easily answer the question why they do what they do. That’s a difficult, delicate, and dangerous topic – and there’s an imbalance of power.
  • Seek to understand what’s actually going on in the subjective experience of the young person. As Simon Sinek says, these conversations lean into the tension. To me, this looks like being curious about what they feel like about the pattern you’re trying to address with them. Bringing compassionate, active listening.
  • Hold the space for something true to be expressed and reflected on. Let the silence do some work. Show you’re ready to listen. Don’t join the queue of adults in their lives who’ve already said they’ve got it wrong, or told them what to do.
  • Shift the relationship to the feelings about the pattern – eg the second darts of suffering – narratives of self-blame…Move into acceptance. This is what you’re doing. Let’s think about what the benefits of that are…What does this pattern actually do for you – in the moment? This is all about bringing a compassionate attention and acknowledgment into the dynamics – in the service of building trust and honesty. Let them understand and own this first.
  • Bring curiosity as to their experience of the costs of the pattern of behaviour. What is the impact on them, their work, their relationships, their choices?
  • Respect their autonomy. What do they want? How do the benefits and the drawbacks balance out for them?

Bringing someone to a point of choice is the best starting point for bringing about change. Once we’re at that point, then we can get working. Working with, rather than working on. Moving beyond what may be experienced as oppositional and bringing them into the driving seat of the change that needs to happen. WE can only do this if there’s an understanding of what’s driving them.

Of course there’s a bit more to it than what can be covered in one newsletter. The dark art of getting young people who don’t want to talk to engage is a favourite topic in my training sessions and talks to parents. But it does start with the discipline of asking questions and not letting the person you’re working with off the hook by filling in the gaps.

Addressing the autonomy of someone we wish to convert into being a partner in conversation – especially a vulnerable conversation about making change – is meeting an absolute baseline psychological need, as Marshall Rosenberg covers in Non-Violent Communication.

Why do we end up rinsing and repeating the same conversations in school? Why do so many kids we work with fall off the wagon of the plan we gave them so soon? Ask – and get answers to these key questions:

  • Are they READY for change? This is dealing with strategy and motivation rather than solutions.
  • Are they RESOURCED enough for change? This includes having that intrinsic sense of motivation – the impetus that comes from acknowledging and accepting disenchantment with the status quo. As well as hope that things can get better.  
  • Are they CLEAR what it is that they want to change? Again, this is really checking in with them rather than US being clear on what we want to change. So they need to be actively involved in the plenary part of the conversation structure…

How does this article make you reflect on difficult conversations you’ve had with pupils? When have you ended up going into ‘skimmer’ mode? What avenues are opening up for you when you think about different models to use?

Let me know your thoughts!

Contact me if:

  • You’d like to book me for staff training – I cover topics like ‘Conversations that matter’, ‘Active listening skills, ‘Reaching the hard to reach’, ‘Modelling tolerance in polarised debate’, ‘Stepping into leadership – difficult conversations’, ‘Shifting stuck behaviours’, ‘Working with parents’
  • You’re interested in higher level pastoral training for Heads of Year and wellbeing specialists.
  • You’d like me to facilitate a case study ‘work discussion group’ style session with a team supporting a difficult situation with a child or group.
  • You’re interested in coaching.

As always, with love and gratitude,


Linked Articles

Dealing with harsh inner critics and core beliefs of ‘not good enough’ – Emma Gleadhill

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