Coaching Letter #97

I hope you’re doing well. In my part of New England we are at the peak of fall, and it’s gorgeous outside. This Coaching Letter is about communication, because it’s been a theme in the work I’ve been doing with several districts lately. Leadership teams have a lot of figuring out to do, a lot of meaning making for themselves, and so it’s another layer of cognitive challenge to think about what others need to know. But it’s really important, because in the absence of the right kind of communication, the following unnecessary problems begin to arise, and then you have to deal with them too:

  1. The last Coaching Letter was about framing, a particular type of messaging, and lack of communication is itself a frame. Just as lack of a positive frame around feedback allows someone to project their own meaning-making onto what you say, lack of communication affords the same thing, and the projection is not always helpful: they don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t trust us enough to tell us anything, it must be bad news, they don’t know how to communicate. Note that these projections are not about the facts, they are about the reason behind the absence of facts.
  2. When information is distributed, all the behind-the-scenes thinking that went into it is often not reported. Bridges’ Transition Model is very commonly used in organizational development to explain the phases of change, but I think it is most helpful when thinking about communication. People in the upper levels of leadership have longer to think about the change/information, and so they start on the process outlined by Bridges earlier than people lower down the org chart. Whatever the topic of communication, the earlier you can start people thinking about it, the less far behind you they will be in terms of the stages of transition. So that means that you shouldn’t wait for a final decision to start communicating—communicate about the process even if you can’t communicate about the outcome.
  3. Leadership teams often treat communication as if it is purely about the transmission of factual information, but that is not the case. (When I had responsibility for hiring people, I would always include a question about communication to see if the candidate would talk about listening and receiving feedback, or just about speaking and writing—I continue to be amazed at how little listening is valued.) This TED Talk is about the importance of the listening half of communication. And this TED Talk about dissenters makes the case that you should not just listen to dissenters, but take care of them (the speaker is Scottish, as am I—I used to sound a lot more like him than I do now.)

This newsletter from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (you should sign up to get it in your inbox if you don’t already) is a great resource—lots of links to other online resources about communication. They are talking primarily about communicating research, but there are prompts to think about all kinds of communication.

And just to inject a little comic relief, and model humility, here is a verbatim account of a short and good-natured exchanged I had with one of my sons last week. (I promised my friend Kerry I would tell this story.) My sons, as you will be able to tell, enjoy pointing out the limits of my competence:

I’m going to the store, do you want anything?
Get me Coca-Cola.
I’m not buying you Coke, you leave open cans in the fridge where they could get knocked over.
But Dad tells me to put them in the fridge!
But you can’t just leave them in the fridge, open containers get knocked over and when they’re in there for days they get pushed behind stuff and they’re more likely to get knocked over.
But you’ve never told me that! I didn’t know that you don’t want open containers in the fridge. If you didn’t want me to leave open Coke cans in the fridge, you should have told me that. You know, Mom, it’s a fundamental of communication that you actually communicate what you want and don’t want. Jeez, Mom, how many books do you have on these bookshelves anyway? Maybe you should read something about communicating.

I’m not sure that there’s a moral to this story, exactly, except the obvious point that communication is never perfect, and that even those of us who think we’re good at it most of the time have room to grow.

Finally, speaking of communication, can I just remind you that this newsletter is free to you as part of the Center’s efforts to share our work. Please help us spread the word by forwarding this email to anyone you think might enjoy it. You can also check out our website, follow me on Twitter, and if you are receiving this email because somebody forwarded it to you, please subscribe using this link.

Please reach out if there is anything else I can do for you. Best, Isobel

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