I started reading Crucial Conversations to get better at communicating with colleagues. But the applications to school discipline soon became blindingly obvious.

The authors define a “crucial conversation” as one in which: (1) opinions vary, (2) emotions run strong, and (3) stakes are high. Almost every disciplinary intervention I’ve been a part of meets these criteria. For some, school discipline conjures images of Morgan Freeman policing groups of rowdy teenagers in a cafeteria or auditorium in Stand by Me; in reality, most of the critical work in school discipline takes place behind closed (figuratively if not literally) doors, one-on-one between student and adult.

Crucial conversations fail when one party comes to believe, consciously or not, that the interaction is no longer “safe.”

When it’s safe, you can say anything.

Here’s why gifted communicators keep a close eye on safety. Dialogue calls for the free flow of meaning—period. And nothing kills the flow of meaning like fear. When you fear that people aren’t buying into your ideas, you start pushing too hard. When you fear that you may be harmed in some way, you start withdrawing and hiding. Both those reactions—to fight and to take flight—are motivated by the same emotion: fear. On the other hand, if you make it safe enough, you can talk about almost anything and people will listen. If you don’t fear you’re being attacked and humiliated, you yourself can hear almost anything and not become defensive.

The two most common responses to a lack of safety are “silence and violence.” Silence consists of “any act to purposefully withhold meaning from the pool of information,” and includes masking (covering up one’s true feelings), avoiding (steering away from sensitive subjects), and withdrawing (refusing to engage entirely). “Violence” is any “verbal strategy that attempts to convince, control, or compel others to your point of view”, including controlling (coercing others to your way of thinking), labeling (dismissing), and attacking (making the other person suffer through belittling and threatening).

In all crucial conversations, we must be able to spot when others move to silence or violence and recognize those as indicators of a lack of safety. But we also have to recognize when we ourselves go “silent or violent.” In disciplinary situations, after an incident has occurred, the most common scenario is we (the adults) go to “violence” while the student goes to “silence.”

This feels “right” in some way, perhaps because it’s the mental model most of us grew up with. Surely the offender has “earned” this tongue-lashing; how else will we communicate to the student that they’ve seriously transgressed?

In reality, although these kinds of conversations may provide us a short-term sense of accomplishment, they accomplish little in terms of (1) restoring the harm done to relationships and/or property (2) ensuring the student does not engage in the same behavior again. Long-term progress can only be made if both parties move away from silence and violence and toward productive dialogue, and that requires that both adult and student feel safe in the conversation.

“Safe??” you say. “But it is the student who has committed the offense! He has put the safety of others in danger, and now we have to worry about making him feel safe??” 

In my next post, I’ll explain why this counterintuitive move is in fact necessary, and what steps we can take to make it happen successfully.

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