Have you ever noticed that you couldn’t make it through high school without learning how to solve quadratic equations but most of us reach adulthood having received no guidance about how to listen to someone who’s really upset or how to conduct a productive conversation on a touchy subject? That’s why I’ve spent so long studying and teaching basic skills in listening to understand, expressing genuine appreciation and delivering a challenging message. Helping people cultivate these abilities is one of my very favorite things to do.
You already know what I’m going to say next: Shifting into different behaviors like patient listening or speaking up when something’s bothering you typically requires more than acquiring shiny new skills. Making a big change in how we interact with others is almost always an adaptive challenge as well as a technical one. So you can imagine how engaging it has been for me to be part of the Minds at Work team that’s helping to develop senior leaders in the New York City Department of Education through a program that honors both essential pieces.
Over the past several months eighteen NYC DOE administrators have been working with Minds at Work coaches on improvement goals they have set for themselves, moving through the familiar arc that begins with the Immunity Map and ends with testing the Big Assumption and identifying Hooks and Releases. They’ve also been participating in skill-building sessions to equip them as peer coaches for each other. I’ve been traveling to New York to present workshops on listening like a coach, questions that improve thinking and giving effective, digestible feedback. As it turns out, many of our participants’ ITC improvement goals have centered on these very areas. That means these sessions have had the added benefit of providing a technical assist for the specific targets they’re working on with their ITC coaches.
This has resulted in opportunities for conversations that address both the mindset shift that’s at the core of our Immunity to Change work and the need to acquire dependable conversational tools. For example, during the How to Deliver a Message workshop, we talked about the tension we often feel (and therefore the choice we believe we have to make) between delivering the message and preserving the relationship. Immediately, our participants could see how their Big Assumptions were pushing them hard along one or the other of those axes and limiting their behavioral “options”. Later, we talked about framing a potentially challenging conversation in terms of how to make things better instead of what is going wrong. When we did, some participants identified an associated Big Assumption: If I speak up I’ll have to sound negative and the conversation will go badly. Others made potentially important discoveries again when we considered ways to structure a message so that it takes the form of a negotiation instead of a complaint.
It has been especially gratifying to hear how much our participants appreciate and are benefitting from their partnerships with our Minds at Work coaches. They use words like “amazing”, “inspiring”, “mind-stretching”, and “changing my life.” The participants themselves, who self-selected into the program, have engaged at a level of depth and commitment that has helped make this venture a particular joy. Being part of it has been a real honor for me.