Why We Need Crucial Conversations to Implement Pathways Systems and High Quality CTE

This March and April, I’m preparing to conduct two Leadership 360 workshops.  In each of these workshops, for part of the session, we are going to explore how to engage productively in “crucial conversations” relating to developing Pathways Systems and high quality CTE programs.  

These skills are essential to success in both the workplace and in our personal lives, so I thought it would be great to re-share this blog post from December 2017.  I share this with humility, as I am still a fellow learner.  But I can say emphatically, these concepts have been really transformative for me.  I hope they help you too!

By the way, please feel free to check out NC3T’s new line-up of professional development offerings, including keynotes and workshops.  We would love to help. 

Post from December 20, 2017, with minor edits

In our quest to help implement Pathways and the Career Connected Learning, it is imperative that we build as much true understanding and buy-in from stakeholders as possible.  Inevitably, there will be differences of opinion as we introduce the pathways concepts to teachers, administrators, parents, students, counselors, and stakeholders outside of education.  Those differences of opinion can either put up roadblocks or clear the way for progress, depending on how we, as leaders and influencers, respond.

Often, resistance occurs when someone feels threatened in some way; either they feel threatened personally (like their job is at risk or their work is not being valued). Or, they feel a value they hold dear is at risk (a value like “all students should be encouraged to aim high – meaning college enrollment”).  Often, while the threats aren’t actually real, the feelings that they experience certainly are very real.  Unfortunately, those feelings of fear and the resulting resistance are usually fostered and perpetuated through poor communication patterns.

I want to highly recommend to you the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High.” The ideas and techniques in this book have amazing applicability for both our personal relationships and professional responsibilities; particularly if you are leading a change effort such as Pathways.

Here’s one big idea.  When we feel threatened, we are pre-programmed to go into either Fight or Flight mode, and our response tactics are to either argue against something we are threatened by or to clam up and keep our distance.  The authors of “Crucial Conversations” share techniques for identifying when someone feels threatened and how to restore a sense of safety so that the individual will share what they really think.  When people feel safe to share their ideas and perspectives, you create true “dialogue” (a key term in the book).  Dialogue can lead to shared purpose and understanding.  And as you probably know from your own experience, even if you don’t fully agree with the outcome or direction of leadership, as long as you understand WHY the decision was made and your voice and ideas were given fair consideration, you can pretty much get on board and support the work.

I put this practice of creating “dialogue” into place in a workshop I held recently.  Near the beginning of the session, after I had provided some basic concepts about Pathways, I asked the group of 25 to generate as many hard questions and objections to Pathways as they could.  We came up with a list that was quite helpful; identified concerns about tracking, limiting choice and/or short-circuiting the career exploration process. Discussed the perception that Pathways will crowd out the arts in favor of technical programs.  And we noted that some groups of students have been systematically steered away from high academic and career expectations (aka “college attainment”) in the past; there is real concern about tracking students and going backwards in terms of social mobility.

After identifying the hard questions, we started to honestly grapple with each of these concerns.  This process laid the foundation for shared understanding and purpose, which is essential for a successful Pathways initiative.

I have much more to learn, but I can’t express how important I believe this part of the work is.  The mechanics and tactics of Pathways are not enormously complex; but it takes work and commitment to change.  Building the understanding, buy-in and willingness to change – that’s the magic.

If you haven’t read it already, please get yourself a copy of “Crucial Conversations.”  And if it has been a while, perhaps now is a good time to re-read and freshly apply its lessons!

Hans Meeder is President of the National Center for College and Career Transitions (NC3T) (www.nc3t.com). NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance, and tools. These strategies help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.