Last week, Denise Simard and I attended the SUNY Education Deans’ fall conference in Cortland.  The professionals at this meeting were amazing and brought their highly-effective interaction style to bear on current issues in education, both state and national, that will result in education program changes.  Some of the topics were challenging and could have caused some conflict, but the attendees are experts at addressing conflict.  This resulted in a feeling of support as we worked together through the issues.  Interactions within this group serve as a model for high-level group functioning.

In the past two EHHS divisional meetings, I referenced information from Ron Heifetz about “Making the interpretation mind-shift.”  One of the items in the mind-shift includes, “moving from a benign perspective to conflictual…moving from a mind-set of conflict avoidance to conflict resolution.” This foundational shift allows individuals, groups, and organizations to reach goals that are linked to their shared values and highest aspirations.  Because we care about the EHHS shared values and the best education possible for our students, we can choose to move from benign (avoidance) to conflict resolution where needed.  Honoring our shared values provides us with the opportunity to move into areas of conflict with respect and with an emphasis on improving communication.

There are barriers to good communication that can develop between individuals or groups (add your own examples here).  In some programs, there are no factions and very good communication.  In other programs, there are some difficulties with communication.  Many times, our students can name these conflicts and factions – this actually surprises some faculty members.  

Heifetz says we cannot narrow the gap between reality and our aspirations without addressing areas of conflict.  He says that some groups have a high tolerance for difficult conversations.  On the other hand, it is not surprising that for others, it is difficult to have conversations about strained communication and walls that have been constructed over many years.  For groups without a high tolerance for difficult conversations, Heifetz posed some questions: 1) What are the assumptions that have led us to see the problem in this way? 2) How accurate are those assumptions? 3) Are there things we can do to test them? 

Heifetz also said “If people have arrived at only one interpretation of the situation, the options for action are often severely limited.” We have to walk in the other person’s shoes in order to arrive at more than one interpretation of a situation.  I saw a nice reinterpretation of this the other day that said, “We must be open to walking in the shoes of another, even when they don’t seem to fit.” 

Once we’ve gained knowledge from those uncomfortable shoes, good communication and supportive interactions will be necessary to honor our shared values and the superior education of our students.  We are their models for professional interaction and help them develop communication skills they will use in their profession.  I encourage you to speak about this blog in your program meetings and with your colleagues.  My team will be happy to ride any pink elephants, however, it would be better to teach those who are motivated to ride the elephants themselves – our students deserve nothing less.

Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Boston: Harvard Business Press.