The Professional Art of Conversation

With all the many great events that go on in schools – obviously lessons; also sports fixtures, music performances, drama productions, service trip, adventurous expeditions etc – it’s easy to get caught up in the tasks we all have to get through – the assignments to complete, the marking, the logistics, the children to drop off or pick up, and so on. And there was a time I thought these were the most important things for our children; that ticking off the tasks was what it was all about.

But I have in recent years come to see things a little differently. If all we are interested in is ourselves, individually, then perhaps the tasks are the things on which to focus. I may not need to talk to anyone if I am checking my bank statement; but that’s a simply closed task that’s totally within my control. Education is never like that; and the more open, complex and important roles of parents and teachers are always about someone else. That’s because as our children turn into adults, we are forced to move from control to influence. That’s a difficult and sometimes painful process for all concerned, because while we want to shape minds, beliefs, values and so on, we can only observe events and actions.

So if we focus for a moment on the shaping of minds, it seems obvious that we have to allow our students to change their own minds – we cannot do that for them; the best we can do is to prompt and offer. And then it follows, I think, that a crucial part of this must be through conversations – because no matter what books, videos, even experiences we have, they are almost always unpacked, developed and embedded – which is to say, understood – through conversations.

The art of conversation is too important to ignore.

The art of conversation is too important to ignore.

It seems strange, therefore, that we tend to take the art of conversation for granted; to simply plough through them as and when they arise without really giving them much care. Most conversations are intuitive, unstructured and unintentional. It’s hard to imagine any other important area of our lives that we give so little attention to! Planning even mundane events like, say, shopping, usually involves thinking ahead a few weeks, making a list, considering alternatives, planning a time, having a clear sense of purpose and so on. But we often just launch into important, even crucial conversations with no equivalent preparations. The more I think about it, the more remarkable I think this is.

Many have been making determined efforts to address this issue – indeed whole genres and new jobs (eg life coach) have sprung up as a result of this approach  There now exist many conversation maps – that is, routes proven to ensure that conversations lead to their goal – deeper, better thinking. It’s actually quite a complicated business – solet me give you a very simple specific conversational strategy I have come across and intend to try out – a simple strategy to do with ensuring we influence, not just control. The strategy, called motivational interviewing, was developed by Mike Pantalon at Yale University. It’s a two step process and follows a certain protocol. Let’s say I am trying to persuade a tardy student to meet deadlines. I ask “On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you do meet the deadline?” The reply might be, “Well, I have a lot of other things on, so I guess a 4.” Now a natural instinct might be to respond “Not good enough! Make it a 9!” but the protocol is to instead follow up with the rather counter-intuitive “So, you are a 4; now tell me why you didn’t choose a lower number?’

The point here is that the student has to explain – maybe for the first time – why he’s able to exceed the minimum; why he’s not at the bottom; and crucially, he is forced to examine his own motivation and find his own strengths. He’s not being confronted with the unpleasant sight of his own weaknesses, and the long road ahead of him to get from a 4 to a 10, but is able to look at where he already actually is, and why he is there. And that is, after all, where his journey has to start from.

This is a simple strategy; I confess I have yet to test it, but it does resonate with me. I imagine that the success of the conversation will be found not at the time, but over time, as it should support better thinking, not just better single actions. So this is a very simple example of perhaps an important truth; that we need to be letting our students and children find their own answers, and to grow out of our control (and into their own). Dan Pink (author of the brilliant Drive) describes it well: “As parents, as teachers, as entire organizations, our instinct is toward greater control. We think control is going to make something better. But people have only two reactions to control: They comply, or they defy. We don’t want defiant kids, but we also don’t want compliant kids. We want kids who are engaged. If you truly want to engage kids, you have to pull back on control and create the conditions in which they can tap their own inner motivations” (here he is talking about the strategy above – the first two and a half minutes are well worth a watch).

The upshot here is that many conversations are successes if, and only if, they promote, provoke or somehow encourage further thought. It’s worth bearing in mind that getting the conversations right may be the most important thing we can do for our children.

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By Nicholas Alchin | Twitter @nicholas_alchin

About Nicholas Alchin

Nicholas Alchin (@nicholas_alchin) is Deputy Head and High School Principal at the United World College of SE Asia, East Campus. A sino-celtic Brit who has lived and taught in UK, Switzerland, Kenya and Singapore, he has also held a number of roles with the IB and writes and speaks widely on educational matters. He enjoys travelling with wife Ellie, and kids Tom (11), Millie (14) and Ruth (17); also reading, writing and baking bread.
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