by Kate Wolfe Maxlow
I used to train teachers on teacher evaluation. Guess how teachers generally feel about that topic? Then I moved on and started training teachers on lesson planning. You can guess their feelings on that, too.
You can probably imagine therefore, that I ran into any number of people who were willing voice their doubts about whatever I was saying, quite publicly, and sometimes quite loudly. Whether you're training 100 people, addressing the PTA, attending your child's IEP conference, or leading a Town Hall meeting, sometimes you just can't avoid talking about controversial subjects to a group.
Luckily, there are some ways to make it less painful for both you and everyone else. Here are some tips that I learned the hard way.
1. Own it.
The urge to pass the buck--to not be the bad guy--is HUGE. When I was presenting on teacher evaluation, the WORST thing I could do was say, "Well, the state says we have to, so...." If I did that, I immediately lost all authority and turned everyone off to everything that I said after that. Don't play the blame game. That way lies a gripe fest that's going to be unproductive and leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth.
"You're right. Teacher evaluation is a hard thing to discuss, which is why I'm glad that I have an opportunity to open this dialogue here today in order to ensure that this system works for you" is so much stronger than, "I've been told we have to discuss."
2. Remember that if people are arguing WITH you, they're less likely to be undercutting you behind your back.
People argue when they care about a topic, and usually when they see you as enough of an authority to share their opinion with you. Otherwise, they just tune out and then do whatever they want anyway. When someone disagrees with you, thank them, honestly. "I appreciate that you feel comfortable enough to tell me that. I also expect that you're voicing a concern that other people here have, which means you've given us a chance to address it, so thank you."
Trust me, the worst audiences are the ones who don't pay attention to a word you say, even if they're polite about it. It's a waste of time for everyone.
3. Remember that if people are arguing with you, they must care enough to do so. Figure out and uphold their values.
Try to listen for the values that people AREN'T expressing, but are driving their comments. For instance, when I presented on new lesson planning procedures and someone said, "When exactly do you expect teachers to have time to do this?" I knew what I was really hearing was: "I'm worried I won't have time to prepare for teaching if I'm so busy filling out lesson plans. I'm worried I won't have time to stay after school with kids who need extra help. I'm worried I'm going to miss time with my own family. I'm worried I might burn out." Often, the sharpness of the tone correlates with the amount the person cares.
The answer, therefore, shouldn't be, "Well, you're going to do what I say because that's the way that it is" (they won't listen to a word you say after that), but "That's a really valid concern. Let's talk for a minute about how we can make sure we're doing this in a way that honors both your needs and the needs of [whatever you're discussing]."
4. Get ahead of controversial topics.
If you know that the topic you're presenting is controversial, be the one to lead the conversation around it. For instance, when I presented on teacher evaluation to teachers, I usually started with an activity in which I posted pictures of various common amusement park attractions (a roller coaster, a ferris wheel, bumper cars, and a balloon dart game), and I asked people to think about their emotions when it came to teacher evaluation. How did the concept make them FEEL? Then I asked them to pick one of the four amusement park attractions that BEST represented their feelings and stand next to it. They would talk together as a group to synthesize one or two answers that best explained why they picked that particular attraction.
Then I had them share out their reasons, acknowledging that this was a topic fraught with concerns and it was my job to help work through those concerns with them so that the system could work for them and their students. I told the audience that I wouldn't necessarily address everything at that moment, but I would address each concern as it made sense during the course of the presentation (this kept the activity from dragging on and on...it also gave me time to think if they brought up a concern I'd never heard before).
Then, most importantly, I DID that. I addressed their concerns. We talked about it as a group or I would go up to an individual who expressed something. Don't ignore the worries...that only makes them grow.
If you know that your topic is going to be controversial, go ahead and put yourself in the perspective of the people who will be arguing with you and draft some possible comments they might make and some graceful, compassionate responses.
5. When worst comes to worst, give the topic a raincheck.
Sometimes, someone cares enough that you probably aren't going to be able to solve their worry expeditiously. In that case, you need to be honest about it. For instance, I've had multiple teachers start to express concerns about standardized testing and its effects on students in training sessions that weren't actually about standardized testing, and a few teachers cared enough that they wanted to keep that conversation going right then and there despite my subtle efforts to get them back on track.
When that happens, I will (not subtly) say, "It's obvious how much you care about this, and I really do, too. I so very much want to have this conversation with you, but I'm also watching our time and I know we don't have much time left to accomplish the goals of this session, so I have to move on with our next topic right now. I really hope you'll come find me after we're done to finish this discussion, though, because this is a conversation that more of us need to be having." Then, most importantly, I DO go look for that person afterward and see if they still want to talk.
In other words, remember that when people disagree with you in a public forum, they're actually saying, "I care about this topic." The key is not to argue back, or shut them down, but to acknowledge them as people and their concerns as valid.
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