Severn News

Navigating Challenging Conversations

What makes a conversation challenging? Opposing opinions? Emotional investment? On Friday, September 27th, as students enjoyed the day off, our entire faculty and staff gathered to explore why some conversations are more challenging than others. The goal of the day was to develop purposeful communication strategies based on professionalism, self-awareness and empathy.

Every Conversation Counts

As part of Severn's ongoing professional development program, Brooke Carroll and Jen Cort, of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS), taught an interactive workshop to examine the personal issues and perspectives we bring to challenging conversations. Before diving in, they shared a quote from author Susan Scott, "Our work, our relationships, and our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time. While no single conversation is guaranteed to transform a company, a relationship, or a life, any single conversation can. Speak and listen as if this is the most important conversation you will ever have with this person. It could be. Participate as if it matters. It does." 
Speakers at a professional development workshop.
Jen Cort and Brooke Carroll

First, Know Yourself

“Many workshops that focus on difficult or challenging conversations talk about the other person; how to deal with a passive aggressive behavior, for example. But our focus is really on the one person you have control over, and that’s yourself.” — Jen Cort
Jen and Brooke began the session by asking us to look at ourselves, the types of difficult conversations we might have in our lives and how our past experiences affect these interactions. They asked us to think about our biases and how we might attribute certain feelings or blame to a person without first understanding their motivations and experiences. We talked about nonverbal communication and the ways that we biologically react to emotionally charged situations. And we explored the idea that roles can impact the balance of power during a conversation.

Get Strategic

Jen and Brooke offered specific strategies to try before, during and after challenging conversations. Although we don’t always know when such a conversation will happen, we can develop a general plan to follow.
  • Identify potential goals and make sure to stick to these during the conversation. It’s helpful to emphasize shared goals between you and the other person as an anchor point while talking.
  • Envision a positive outcome. Think about how this conversation will benefit you and the other parties involved. Focus on that rather than fear of a negative outcome.
  • Write a script. Think about the types of conversations that might arise and plan how you will respond.
  • Ask clarifying questions like “I heard you that correct?” This lets the other person know that you are listening and gives them an opportunity to clarify if needed. It’s a way of checking for understanding on both sides.
  • Try to limit your speech to one sentence or two at a time. This can reduce our tendency to talk for too long when we are uncomfortable. It’s also helpful to allow for silence and thinking.
  • Resist reloading. Reloading is waiting for the other person to stop speaking rather than really listening to what they are saying.
  • Take a break if you need to.
  • Create a follow-up plan and stick to it. “The next time we see each other…”
  • Ensure confidentiality if needed.
  • Re-establish positive interactions as soon as reasonably possible. Don’t let the negative parts of the conversation follow you.
  • Reflect on what was successful and what wasn’t about the talk. Make notes for next time.

For Our Teachers, For Our Students

We frequently expect our students to participate in difficult conversations. We ask them to give feedback to one another during group work. We encourage them to engage with others who have dissimilar views. And we expect them speak up or talk to an adult when they see someone being treated with aggression or prejudice. As teachers and mentors, we give them frameworks and guidance, both formal and informal, on how to approach these different scenarios. We need to learn about and use those same types of frameworks.

As we endeavor to know and value every member of our community, we must continually improve the ways we interact with one another. It's about intentionally building a culture of respect in which every voice can be heard. The better prepared we are to handle difficult conversations in our personal and professional lives, the better we can help our students do the same. 

Professional Development at Severn

As a student-centered institution, we believe that we should model the qualities we wish to see in our students. To that end, we engage in professional development as a community of learners. Adults learn best in collaborative situations where professional growth is valued.

Starting with the summer faculty read and building upon the work we do during the Severn Summer Institute, we provide built-in professional development opportunities throughout the year, support faculty travel to conferences, and offer grants for personal and professional growth. We hope that faculty will engage frequently in professional development to remain nimble for change in our evolving world.

Lower School

Upper School