Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.

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December 07, 2020

When the Talking Gets Tough: My Favorite Strategies for Facilitating Difficult Conversations

By Sally Ball

Picture1Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

As a society, we can be challenged in our ability to speak to one another about subjects for which there are deeply held, complex, and varying perspectives. We now face the additional challenges of social isolation and communicating via Zoom and other virtual platforms where it can be harder to read social cues and body language.

As a leader, I have struggled with communication in general and avoiding/mediating conflict, so in 2019, when I attended the NAEA School for Art Leaders, I wanted to make this a focal point for my leadership growth. I am not claiming to be an expert in facilitating difficult conversations, but I would like to share some tools I have found to be helpful on my journey to becoming a better communicator.

Ladder of Inference

This is by far one of my favorite leadership tools that I have acquired. Many who teach, whether in museums or classrooms, are familiar with VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) founded by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine. The Ladder of Inference also makes thinking visible. This tool is all about bringing to light how people get from point A (pool of information) to Point B (conclusions). It takes practice to incorporate this strategy into your toolbox, but once you do it is a very versatile tool. I have used it both personally and professionally to help me understand another’s perspective.

Daily Question Process

What I love about Marshall Goldsmith’s Daily Question Process, is that each of the questions, which are determined by the individual forming the list, begins with the same stem, “Did I do my best to…” so personal accountability is built in to the process. Notice, too, that the questions ask if one has done their best, not if one has succeeded, which allows for the fact that people are not infallible, and since the questions are daily, if you didn’t get it right today, there’s always tomorrow. To further my work in developing my communication skills for having difficult conversations as a leader, I ask myself daily, “Did I do my best to not avoid conversations that make me uncomfortable?” and, “Did I do my best to not avoid things I don’t want to do?” Knowing that I have to answer these questions each day motivates me and keeps me from putting off dealing with the things I find challenging.

“I” Messages

The last strategy I want to share is the three part "I" Message. It takes some practice to get in the habit of framing your feedback to reflect a specific behavior, consequence of the behavior, and how it made you feel, but once your class or team has the hang of it, “I” messages provide a shared language for giving any type of feedback.

Facilitating difficult conversations takes courage, practice, and some strategies you can count on. I hope these will prove helpful to you on your own leadership journey.

- SB

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