Shelley Burgess

Reflections of an educational learner and leader


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5 Reflections on the Language of Leadership

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Remember the old adage ” Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”?  I beg to differ.  Words have power… A LOT of power.  The words we use as leaders matter.  People pay attention to them.  People make decisions based on them.  People go home from work uplifted or beaten down because of them.  Something we say out loud that might be insignificant to us may have a more powerful impact on someone than we will ever know… so choose your words wisely.  Once they are out in the world, you can’t take them back – EVER!

I may not be the most eloquent writer, but as a leader I have always been a student of words… their power, their impact, their influence.  I choose what I say and how I say it very purposefully and thoughtfully because I want people to hear and understand my message in the way I intend for it to be sent.  There are many lessons I have learned about words, their power, and the critical importance of good communication, and I wanted to reflect on a few of them here…

1.  As leaders we have lost the luxury of thinking out loud!

Like it or not, it’s true.  Even if you define yourself as a highly collaborative leader or a servant leader (or any other kind of leader) – you still don’t have this luxury. As a new principal, Itaste your words learned early on that once I spoke or shared a thought, others would clam up and be less likely to share their thoughts and ideas.  Apparently, once I had spoken and shared my initial thoughts, they assumed the decision had been made and their ideas didn’t matter.  That is the opposite of who I am or want to be as a leader.  In my first year as a principal, I adopted a strategy that I have used on many occasions ever since – instead of being the first to talk, I am the last to talk. Instead of sharing, I pose questions – very carefully planned and crafted questions, and then I  listen to the other voices in the room.  When they have finished sharing, I take on the role of summarizer and synthesizer, and I add my two cents if the thought hasn’t already been shared.  Strategies like this one have been essential for me because I genuinely believe that all of those other voices matter and that with lots of ideas we can build one or two amazing ideas to carry us forward, but as soon as I start to think out loud… I run the risk of stifling those other voices.

One of my favorite stories about this idea which I share with every new leader I have the opportunity to coach, comes from a principal I used to work with.  He had an “aha” moment in his first year as a principal where he was freely sharing with one of his teachers several thoughts and ideas that he had just learned about at a PD he had attended.  He was “thinking out loud” about the kinds of things they could be doing as a school, ideas and thoughts he had about changes they could make etc. etc. By his account, he stopped mid-sentence after noticing the teacher was turning a little bit green.  She was overwhelmed by all that he was saying and the impact all those changes would have on her.  I’m sure her mind was going a mile a minute about all she would have to do.  His reflection with me about that moment was that he suddenly realized that while he was just chattering away in his excitement about things he had learned, she was staring at the new giant red stamp that he was now wearing on his forehead that said “BOSS”, and she was interpreting all he was saying through that lens.

As leaders, we need to be heard, people need to know who we are and what we stand for.  They need to know what to expect from us and be able to predict how we will respond to a variety of situations.  If we always just say the first thing that pops into our heads at any given moment, we can run the risk of diluting our message and creating confusion for people who count on us to stay focused and consistent.

2.  Find alternatives for loaded words and phrases

positivesIf you want your message to have maximum impact,  pay close attention to how people respond when you use certain words and phrases – do the words uplift and inspire?  Do they set off triggers and cause negative reactions?  I want my words to influence and inspire great work.  I want the words, phrases and tones I use to convey to people that we are all part of the same team moving forward together.  I want my words to ensure that I value you and believe in you as a professional.   I want the words I use to motivate people to try new things, take risks and feel safe.  I don’t want them to turn people off, so I’ve also learned that while I may be married to a concept or idea, I need not be married to a particular word or phrase.

As an example… I no longer use the word “rigor” when I talk with educators or facilitate professional learning opportunities.  It’s too loaded.  Let me be clear, I truly love the concept that most people are trying to communicate when they use that word, but I don’t use it anymore. I’ve used it often enough in the past, but too many people are turned off by it.  They aren’t necessarily turned off by the concept it is intended to convey in education, but they are turned off by the word. I have watched people sneer and roll their eyes when it gets used in PD, and I’ve read numerous blog posts about the horrors of the word (including one written by my husband @burgessdave) So I made a deliberate decision to take it out of my vocabulary when interacting with educators.

Depending on the context and the conversation, I now use phrases like “level of complexity”, “complex thinking”, “challenging and thought-provoking work”, “Asking a meaty question that allows for divergent thinking” and other phrases like these.  I can communicate the same concepts I was trying to get across when I used the word rigor but without any of the negative reactions the word can evoke.

3.  Remove judgment language from your feedback

WordsPeople don’t like to be judged.  I know I don’t.  I love feedback… I love reflecting with people… I love being challenged and pushed to be better, but judgment… no thanks!  I have supported and coached many educational leaders, instructional coaches, and teacher leaders over the years, and I believe this is a challenging, but essential one for leaders to get good at, and we are all so prone to do it.  We make assumptions and pass judgment all the time – even when we don’t notice we are doing it.  So, to get good at eliminating judgment, we have to notice when we are doing it… we have to pay attention to the common “judgment phrases” we use and replace them with new language that is void of judgment.   Some of the common ones I hear administrators use: “I really didn’t like the way he…”  “I just wish she would have…”  “That’s not the way I would have…”  “If only she…” “What was he thinking?”   We are quick to judge and make assumptions and often don’t take the time to understand.  One strategy I have found to be particularly helpful is when I find that I am ready to judge, I need to ask a genuine question… not one of those fake/manipulative questions that people know are judgmental, but a genuine question to help me understand.  here is an example:

To know me as an educational leader is to know that I have a strong commitment to having insanely high expectations for students and an unwavering belief in their talents and capabilities.  Probably the quickest way to set me off (in my own head at least as I would carefully craft my words before having the conversation) is to tell me that “kids can’t”, so when I walk into a classroom and observe a lesson that appears to be way below grade-level expectations, I can be quick to judge.   I had to notice this about myself first, and when I found myself wanting to say “The learning objective you were teaching was WAY below grade-level… What were you thinking???” I had to take a deep breath and remind myself that I wanted to understand – not judge… so I started asking genuine questions in a true attempt to understand.  I now say something like this instead…

“So when I walked into the room, I noticed you were working with the kids on _____.  Tell me more about that lesson and why you chose it as a focus?  I’d love to know what made you decide to go there with them.” Over the years, I have received amazing responses to that question.  Things like: “I had just given them a quick pre-assessment on an essential pre-requisite skill they needed for the lesson 10 minutes before you walked in, and they didn’t have it down, so in order to ensure their success I spent 15 minutes teaching the essential pre-requisite, you should see how they later rocked the lesson.”  or “I was reading over their essays last night and noticed a common trend, they just didn’t seem to have a grasp on… so we spent some time on it today.  Then I had them re-write… and they were so much better.”  Things I might never have known if my language put people on the defensive.

When we observe lessons, we can see a lot, but we also have no idea what happened before we walked into the room and no idea what happened after we left.  If our assumptions make us quick to judge, we can let judgment language dominate our feedback and conversations.  This can quickly close doors to us and rob us of amazing opportunities to have incredible dialogue with our teachers that can inspire them to move forward in their practice.  If we want to be invited into the real conversations about teaching and learning in our schools, then our teachers need to feel safe and know we aren’t judging them.

4.  Be careful… most of our praise is judgmental, too!

Yep!  Phrases like “Great job”, I SO loved your lesson on…”  “I really liked the way you…”  are also judgmental, and I would argue that we should eliminate these from our feedback as power-of-wordswell.  I’m not advocating that we never tell someone they did a great job, but I am advocating that we need to be careful when and for what we say it.  When giving feedback on a lesson… I almost never use positive judgment language for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost… I don’t want it to be about me and what I like or don’t like… I want it to be about what engages students and helps them learn.  I don’t want people to plan, adjust and change their lessons based on whether or not I like them – that shouldn’t be the criteria on which lesson planning and lesson delivery are based, and I don’t want my language to convey that I THINK that is the most important criteria.  So, what do I do instead… I use “noticing”  language, and I am convinced that people actually have more of a sense of satisfaction when I do than if I were just to say “great job” or “awesome lesson”.  So what does it sound like?  Something like this…

“Hey when I was in your classroom today, I noticed that you were trying out a new strategy (insert strategy here).  I could tell that it was really making a difference for your kids.  When I sat down and talked to Sarah and Johnny, they had real depth in their responses. Sarah said… Johnny said…  What were some of the things you noticed?  How are you going to expand on that tomorrow?  Would you mind if I came by to see that – I expect it will push their learning even further, and I am excited to see where it might go.”

I would argue that feedback like this is both powerful and perceived as highly positive, but it is also void of any judgmental language.

5.  Take steps to understand yourself as a communicator

communicationIf we want to become powerful communicators, we have to do the hard work to understand who we are as communicators now and how others perceive us.  I recently had a conversation with a long time friend of mine who was sharing a story about a PD session she attended in her district.  The presenter was a district leader and someone sitting at my friend’s table, instead of listening to the message being delivered (which ironically was about the importance of PLCs and teamwork) was keeping a tally of how many times the presenter said the word “I”.  I can’t remember the exact number she told me, but it was something like 176 times.  I’m guessing that this district leader has no idea how often he uses the word “I” when communicating to his team, but it was clearly a turn-off to people who were listening, and as a result, his message wasn’t heard.

We have to be aware of our patterns and habits when we speak if we want to become better at sending the right messages with our words.  So, enlist some help!  A long time friend and principal colleague of mine was great for me in this regard.  He knew how much words mattered to me, so even when I moved into the assistant superintendent  role where I was technically his boss, he would help keep me on my toes with my language.  He would catch phrases that I might start to overuse and send me little slips of paper with the phrase and a big “X” drawn through it.  He would help me catch some of those “trigger” words that were starting to cause some grumbling among our colleagues.  He would help me understand which words and phrases had made a powerful and positive impact on him.  I appreciated every one of these exchanges because they helped me grow and get better.

I could go on and on for days about language and its impact, but for now, I leave with this…

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