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This website contains ideas that are "in process." Simply put, what you read here may be just some random thoughts, rather than validated and final procedures. Mind you, aren't most ideas "in process?" The bulk of what you'll read here are answers to questions I am emailed or asked during presentations, or summaries of excellent ideas others share with me.

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Finding Common Ground

“Why cannot we work at cooperative schemes and search for the common ground binding all mankind together?” William Orville Douglas

 A few months ago, I had the pleasure of presenting to a group of teachers in Chennai, India. For me, this was an extremely unique experience, and I loved every minute of it. The city was as exotic as you can imagine, with spice and incense in the air, sitar music emanating from buildings, and wonderful Indian food every meal. As I walked in to the workshop the first day, children stood along the entrance holding candles and lotus flowers, and the session began with chanting. The teachers in the workshop couldn’t have looked more different that those I am used to, with all the women wearing saris and sporting Bindis on their foreheads. 

After about 30 minutes into my workshop on the Big Four, however, I had a revelation. This was the most exotic setting in which I had ever presented, and yet, it felt just like any other workshop I had led.  As different as everyone looked, we were all educators, we all wanted our students to be successful learners, and we shared a host of interests, concerns, and passions. We may have looked different, but we were mostly the same.

In our day-to-day experiences, we can easily to lose sight how much we hold in common with others, especially when they let us down, disagree with us, treat us poorly, or stand in the way of us achieving our goals. One important relationship skill is to notice and remember the similarities we share with others.  Being intentional about finding common ground is an important part of effective communication.

The internet offers wonderful examples of people finding common ground. One organization, Playing for Change, creates beautiful short movies in which people all over the world are filmed playing the same songs, and then through the wonders of technology are the recordings are edited to create the impression that everyone is playing the song together at the same time.  If you haven’t seen their videos I suggest you check out the website now, and then return to this text. The videos beautifully illustrate how much each of us holds in common with everyone else.

The Milestones Project is another organization dedicated to helping us find common ground.  Founded by photographers Richard and Michele Steckel, the project assembles wonderful photographs of children from around the world to show, as they say, “a world where what divides us is healed and what unites us is loved by seeing how we are all the same.” If you have time, I suggest you check out their website as well.

Finally, Mike Fisher sent me a note about a useful resource to checkout Forty Successes .This site, created by William Watson Purkey and John M. Novak suggests “forty inviting comments” and “forty disinviting comments. I think anyone should find this helpful if they are looking to find common ground.

The strategies I'm proposing this week, included below, are simple ways to try and find common ground.  I'll write more, soon, about my own experiments with these strategies.

The Strategies

1. Use The Communication Strategies We Have Been Practicing.

(a) commit to finding common ground

(b) pause before responding

(c) reframe ourselves as learners

2. Find Common Denominators; Avoid Common Dividers

3. Use words that unite.  Avoid words that divide.

If you've been trying out these strategies, we'd love to hear what you're learning.


Stacy Cohen's guest comments on using a Flip Camera during coaching

When Jim first handed our coaching team Flip cameras and told us to use them with teachers, I was very skeptical that these could provide more information than the paper and pencil data collecting tools we had already been using. I was wrong. The cameras serve as a mirror for teachers to examine and reflect on their own teaching practices in a very powerful way.

In February, I targeted several "good" teachers to video record. I told them I knew they were already highly effective teachers, but I thought they might be able to learn something new about their teaching or their students by participating. Every teacher I asked agreed to participate.

One new teacher agreed to let me tape two different periods of the same course. I taped about an hour of both 90-minute classes (a limitation of my Flip camera) and burned DVDs for her to watch on her own. I gave her Student Assessment and Lesson Self-Assessment forms to fill out once she had watched each video. The first assessment asked her to look at the behaviors of her students and the second required her to analyze her own practices. I also asked her to note the times of any parts of the video that she wanted to discuss. The classes I taped were very good in terms of student behavior and teacher instruction. The few areas of concern I jotted in my notes were the same she had found by viewing the videos on her own. We discussed a few minor changes that she implemented the next day. Throughout most of the meeting, I tried to ask probing questions to help her reflect deeper on the decisions she had made at various times during the lesson. I asked her what she thought went well, and I shared with her the parts I thought were particularly strong. We also examined a few weak areas. I was fortunate that these were good lessons because it made the dialogue easier, and I built her trust.

The second two classes she invited me to tape did not go as well. Amazingly, I didn't even have to say a word about it. As soon as we met, she noted how boring the classes had been. She said she felt so horrible after viewing the videos during her plan time that she rushed home that night and rewrote all of her lessons for the rest of the week to make them more engaging. When we met, we discussed her specific concerns in each lesson and how she could have made the boring lessons more interesting. We also looked at specific parts of the videos related to her Student Assessment and Lesson Self-Evaluation sheets. Throughout our meeting, I made her do the thinking and reflection by asking questions and giving her time to process. I’ve watched her grow as a teacher by participating in the video coaching with me. Although watching videos is time consuming and testing season is hectic, this teacher continues to invite me back to tape her classes because she sees value in the process.

 I have concluded that videotaping is an excellent way to move teachers from "good" to "great." We know that “good” teachers already analyze their lessons and make an effort to do what's best for kids. The videos provide a closer inspection of what's really happening to enable them to reflect and make changes in their practice. Another teacher I worked with said he learned a lot more about how to improve his teaching through this coaching approach than by receiving feedback from administrators during walk-throughs. I have yet to try this process with a really “bad” teacher. I'm wondering if weak teachers can reflect as well. Will they really see the problems or will they be in denial or make excuses about the kids? This will be my next challenge. Still, I’m finally convinced the power of video outweighs just using data collected through coach observation.


Are your emotions pushing you around?

Our next communication challenge is about controlling destructive emotions.  I’ve created a simple little strategy for this. Name it! (recognize that you are in a situation that might push your hot buttons), Reframe it! (see yourself as a listener, learner, game player, or as a detached observer to detach yourself from a potentially emotionally taxing situation), and Tame it!  (keep your emotions under control by buying time, paraphrasing what you’ve heard, avoiding vicious cycles like “what happened conversations”, making sure the conversation feels equal, and avoiding making assumptions.

When I posted this challenge, I was careful to suggest that we could tackle either experiences in real time or look back to events from the distant past, just in case our emotions don’t get stirred up in the next two weeks.  My thinking was that events that stir up our emotions would be pretty rare.  In fact, I expected that I would have to go back to ancient history to find an event to talk about.

Well I was wrong, wrong, 3 times wrong. We are only a few days into the challenge, and what I have learned already is that I let my emotions push me around way too much.

Here is what I have experienced. Driving through a city recently, I found that my lane and the lane beside mine were kind of merging together (although there was no indication on the road).  Beside me there was a fellow driving a pick-up truck. He made it clear that he thought I was merging into his lane, and he wasn’t happy.  Indeed, he gunned his F-150, and communicated his message non-verbally and quite simply (it only took one finger).

We have driving experiences like this frequently, and I’ll never see the guy again, but what I noticed was how much it bugged me. That simple incident, with a fellow I’ll never see again, hung over me for several hours, like a black cloud. I knew I shouldn’t let it bug me, but it did.

Second event:  Sitting at my desk, writing, my phone at KU rings, and on the line is a telemarketer.  I try to listen patiently, but she continues, (she also called me Joe) and since I knew I wasn’t interested in what she was offering, I politely explained that I wasn’t interested.  She said OK in friendly way, but then before hanging up, for the benefit of her co-workers, she swore under her breath at me, and hung up the phone.   Again, that little interaction with a complete stranger infected my day, like a nasty disease, and I felt down a notch despite my best attempts to put these events behind me. It still bugs me as I write this, actually.

What I am learning is that our interactions with others (even complete strangers) have a big impact on our emotional well-being.  A complete stranger can move the needle back a lot, and random acts of kindness, I suppose, can move it forward.  Somehow, though, the negative experiences seem a lot more potent than the positive.

Third event: I was in a meeting about a project, and it looked like someone on the team wanted to change our project’s direction.  I started to get emotionally messed up (OK a little angry) inside thinking that the person was just making the recommendation without considering the data and the considerable work I had put into making the plan.  Then I remembered our communication challenge, and it really helped. 

I realized that I was just making assumptions, and I was getting all stirred up with no real idea about what my colleague was thinking. I reframed the situation so that I saw myself as a learner and shifted to asking questions. My whole experience of the meeting changed.  Not only did I save myself from being rude, but I learned a lot (and I am continuing to learn). 

I recognize now that much of what upsets me may have nothing to do with reality.  My big take away so far is that I need to stop getting worked up about assumptions.  By being the learner, by asking questions instead of assuming, I can get a lot more out of my interactions, and I can decrease the likelihood that I’ll act like a jerk.

So all in all, destructive emotions push me around a lot more than I realized, and the benefits of controlling those emotions are huge.  What are you learning?  Are your experiences similar or different?  We’d all love to hear your stories.


Self-coaching on Listening: It Ain't Easy

Last week I started our self-coaching for communication skills experiment. Each two weeks, I (along with close to 300 other hardy souls) will be trying to coach myself on how to be a better communicator.   The information gathered from this experiment will eventually become part of a new book I’m working on about professional learning.

Our first project is to improve listening skills by trying the following:  1.  Commiting to listening, 2. Making sure my partner is the speaker, 3. Pausing before speaking and asking “Will my comments open up or close down this conversation?”

All of us have tried stuff like this.  We all read great books by people like Stephen Covey or Susan Scott, and we want to do what the books say, we really do, but … somehow not much happens.

So for this experiment, we’re trying something different: self-coaching.  What we do is we video or audio record ourselves in communication, and we then watch the video to see how well we do.  The idea is that we can provide our own feedback and follow-up as we try to be good listeners.

Well I’ve been doing my self-coaching, and what I have found is, as Montgomery Gentry so eloquently stated, “This ain't about easy it's about tough.”  Indeed, David Bowey & 2Pac say the same thing. 

Really looking at how you communicate, well, it can be tough.

My first experiment, I must admit, was, despite Montgomery Gentry’s insight into life, pretty easy.  My conversation partner was passionately interested in her topic, and the purpose of the conversation was simply for me to learn what she had to teach me about a project in Alberta.  Positioned as a learner, listening to someone who was enthusiastic about a topic that mattered to me, all I had to do was keep myself from interrupting and let her have the conversation.  All in all it went pretty well, and I was feeling like a pretty effective communicator.

But then Jenny, the love of my life, and I had a conversation about home renovations. Jenny wants some; me, not so much. That conversation wasn’t so easy.  OK it was maybe a little tough. 

What is really interesting (and embarrassing) is that until I watched myself, I was convinced that I had done a fantastic job listening to Jen. The video evidence, however, gave me away. I interrupted, I cut Jenny off, I judged what she was going to say, long before she had come close to finishing. Our conversation was gracious, and loving, Jenny made me laugh, but I also I frequently did a terrible job of listening.

Watching the video of the conversation taught me a couple things.  First, I really have very little idea what I look like performing the important tasks of my life—like talk with me wife.  Second, video can really help me get a better idea of what I am really doing.  Third, when I have the painful awareness of how I’m performing, I am motivated to improve.  I just can’t handle being the jerky guy in the video recording, and I’m going to try to do the tough work of getting better. The video recordings will help me see if I am really doing any better.

All of this has real implications for coaching teachers. Many of you are experimenting with the self-coaching experiment along with me.  People across Canada, the US, Singapore, India and other parts of the world are now also practicing self-coaching.

So if you are in on this party, what are you learning? I’d love to hear how self-coaching is working (or not working) for you. How do you see self-coaching help us as we work with teachers.  I’d love to hear anything you’d like to share. My bet is that together we can learn a lot.


Coaching yourself on communication strategies. Are you in?

Like many of you, I create stuff hoping to positively change others’ lives.  I use books, blogs, articles and tweets to introduce ideas. But I often worry that little happens after the writing is read.

Marshall Goldsmith talks about these same worries in his new book, Mojo. Goldsmith writes: “I [have gone] back to many of my clients and assembled data that answered the question ‘does anyone ever really change?’ … Our database has grown to more than 250,000 respondents.  My conclusion is unequivocal. Very few people achieve positive, lasting change without ongoing follow-up.”

So for the book I’m writing, I’m trying out a new idea. I’m calling this process self-coaching, and I’d be mighty grateful for a few good women and men to help me test it.

The test will be simple. Every two weeks I will email my partners (you could be one!) 2-4 pages on one of the following communication topics: (1) really listening, (2) seeking common ground, (3) emotional alignment, (4) withholding judgment, (5) asking real questions, (6) suspending assumptions, (7) being a witness to the good, (8) establishing a third-point for conversation, (9) precise conversations, and (10) staying detached. Note: these topics may change as I get deeper into the project.

Each email will come with a super-simple self-coaching strategy and guidelines on how to self-coach yourself on each of these topics using the strategy.  Your job, should you wish to accept it, is to try out the strategy and answer a few questions at the end of the two weeks. I’m looking for your feedback on how effective each self-coaching activity is for you and what I can do to improve it. If you have a video camera or tape recorder, you might be asked to record yourself during some conversations. The recordings are only for you to listen to so you can gauge how well you are doing.

Some of your comments (if this process works) may be included in my communication chapter in the new book.  I’ll also publish the strategies on my blog after getting feedback, and I’ll include comments in the blog.  That way, everyone who is interested can be in on the party.

To each person who provides honest answers on all of the self-coaching strategies, I’ll send a free copy of the book hot off the presses. I’ll also thank you in my book.  I hope, though, that the real reward will be that you dramatically improve your ability to communicate and build relationships. I really hope I have the same experience myself.

So that’s the plan.  One strategy every two weeks.  A chance to try the strategy out and provide feedback.  Your comments could be in the book and be on the blog.  A free book.  A chance to improve your relationships and communication.

If you’re interested, send me an email. The first strategy, on listening, will be emailed to my self-coaching partners this weekend.  Deadline, if you want to participate, will be this weekend as well.

My email is: