Choosing Words Wisely

A short blog on the whats and the hows of language in decision-making conversations.

I am a people pleaser, at heart. I hate disagreements and in my NQT year, I’d take the path of least resistance to avoid any kind of difficult conversation. Parents, governors, staff, kids. I was Queen Pushover. I was unable to work with any real purpose, because almost everything I did was to appease other, stronger voices. Over the years, I have found my voice and sense of conviction. This has not been easy; I got it wrong, at first. I swung from giving blunt feedback – to the point of insult – to cajoling people – to the point of undeniably manipulative behaviour. A lack of understanding of the big picture, a misunderstanding of the crossover between the strategic/operational sides of my role and a deep-rooted, political drive for social justice serving as justification for arguing the toss over every SLT decision probably made me an awkward person to work with.

Finding a way to lead with humility, integrity and confidence takes time and a deep knowledge of the systems at play. We need to be confident enough to challenge decisions, trains of thought and conventions without alienating our colleagues. We need to empower others and come to accept that our own ideas are just that – our own. There is almost always an alternative approach; having a TLR or being on the Leadership Scale doesn’t mean we have all the answers. It means that we have been given responsibility to do the right thing for our contexts, and part of that means listening and accepting other voices. We need to probe, consider, research and act with care and strategy. We need to accept that it’s very rarely personal.

When we avoid assertive and honest conversations, we sacrifice progress. We place our own sensitivities before the job at hand – we spiral into the dangerous territory of acting according to who is right, rather than what is right (Smith, 2007). Often, the who is the person with the most power, authority or influence – and this person is not always the person with the best insight into the best course of action.

Say what you mean

My new headteacher recently shared an article with me – a review of the applications of the Radical Candour approach. The website is here: Sometimes, we shy away from actually saying what we mean, for fear of upsetting or offending. This doesn’t mean that we need to be blunt, or rude. It means that we should say what we mean and avoid euphemisms, because than softening the blow, we simply end up giving mixed messages. Russ Laraway, blogging on the Radical Candour site, discusses the use of ‘I don’t want to waste your time,’ which is a perfect example of how we hide behind language to avoid saying what we mean. When we say ‘I don’t want to waste your time,’ we actually mean, ‘I don’t want to waste my time,’ and the other person knows this. Laraway says, “We say something out of some vague sense of sparing people’s feelings, but it’s usually clear to the other party what we really mean.” Clarity and transparency save a lot of time and will garner more respect, in the long term.

The ‘historical’ trap

This has been a feature of both schools I’ve worked in and every school I’ve worked with. Decisions get taken because ‘historically, that’s how it’s always been done.’ This stunts progress and needs challenging. It can be tricky, though, to negotiate your way through this. Examples of the decisions that stick as a result of the ‘historical’ argument are wide and far-reaching – for me, they’ve included timetabling decisions, tutor-group allocation, SEND support distribution, use of specific playgrounds – the list goes on. There may well be a rationale behind the decisions, beyond the established routine. There may not, though, or the original rationale may no longer be relevant. Ask. Ask for the rationale. It’s not unreasonable. If you’re the leader giving the ‘historical’ argument, then don’t jump to the defence when you’re asked for the rationale; it may be worth a review.

A decision is not for life

We work with cohorts. Cohorts shift and change; we get ‘something in the water with that year group’ and so on. Don’t write something off and refuse to discuss it again, just because it’s not worked before. The old ‘that wouldn’t work for our kids’ mantra might need to be reviewed, even on a yearly basis. The nuances of cohorts can be striking. I sometimes find myself saying, ‘no – I won’t ever be convinced about that,’ and sometimes, that conviction sticks. I’m not talking about fundamental political or moral principles, but approaches, policy and practice. We need to keep ourselves in check on this. I worked as Head of English at an inner-city Bristol school from 2004 to 2011. During this time, the school relocated to a new site (and therefore a shifted catchment); took in years 8 – 10 from another school’s closure; went through 3 headteachers and of course, Labour lost the general election. All of these impacted massively on approaches and leadership decisions. There’s no need to nail our colours to the mast on every decision.

Avoid mutually exclusive trains of thought

It’s worth keeping a check on ideas that are easily misinterpreted as mutually exclusive. ‘We can’t do X because that would mean the loss of Y’ is used too often to derail an entire approach to school improvement. It might take more time and more effort to enable both to exist, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. A notable one is the national recognition of the workload and wellbeing balance. Some schools are now getting this right; it’s entirely possible to bring about school improvement while protecting the wellbeing of staff. Or, on a more local level to me, it’s entirely possible to bring about a new, simple, (and essentially binary) behaviour system while making reasonable adjustments for those who need them.

It’s not a personal threat

Being challenged in a professional context is not a personal assault or character assassination. I’m sure this doesn’t need saying, yet sometimes, I get the impression that it really does need saying. It’s easy to feel personal ownership over a project, and therefore personal failure when it goes wrong, and personal criticism when we’re challenged on it. But it’s really not personal. When we feel that we are being personally attacked, then that’s another issue that needs to be addressed through different channels.

Perhaps, like a Rothko, we need to be right in front of the issue in order to take it on, to understand our own position and relative size, and to appreciate the importance, enormity, and beauty of what we’re doing – especially when we get it right.



Putting Ego to Work for Your Chorus – Steven Smith, 2007

Mark Rothko’s No. 14 – Labelled as available for reuse on Google Images