C is for Challenging

This is the second extract from this week’s featured Book of the Week  The A-Z  Guide to Working in Further Education by Jonathan Gravells and Susan Wallace.

Ever found yourself in a meeting, discussing a new initiative with colleagues, or talking to your boss about how she wants you to address a particular problem, and thought to yourself This doesn’t sound right to me. I’m sure I could suggest a better way …? Such situations tend to go one of three ways.

  1. We decide to keep our mouths shut for fear of upsetting people, or being thought disruptive and awkward. Then kick ourselves afterwards when it all goes wrong or someone else points out the alternative we had in mind.
  2. We get all self-righteous and fired up about how right we are and rubbish the prevailing idea, thus proving to everyone beyond doubt that we really are disruptive and awkward.
  3. We manage to question the prevailing idea and introduce alternative thinking without undermining anyone or creating defensiveness.

So how do we set about ensuring that, when faced with these situations, we successfully go for the third option? Some of the principles we describe in the section on feedback apply equally here. So, direct challenge carries the danger of being seen as a threat to other people’s status and our perceived intent will affect how people respond. The more supportive we are, the more we position our views as intended to help the team/colleague/boss look good (as opposed to, say, showing off our superior intellect, seeking attention or getting revenge for a previous slight), then the more receptive others will be to our alternative ideas.

Let us look at some ways of doing this.

  • ALTERNATIVE REALITIES – instead of framing our comments in terms of right and wrong ( no, that’s wrong, what you need to do is…. ), try setting them in the context of alternative realities or perspectives ( Well yes, that’s certainly a valid way of looking at it, but an alternative view might be …) .
  • QUESTIONS NOT STATEMENTS – where statements can appear dogmatic and fixed, questions can be a gentler way of opening up different perspectives, without necessarily implying the other person is wrong ( Have you thought about what might happen if …? How do you think students might respond to …?) .
  • DE-PERSONALISE – people feel more threatened and therefore more defensive if they think we are attacking them personally. So what about …

– I’m not sure that’s the only assumption RATHER THAN No, you’re wrong about that …
– that response could be misinterpreted RATHER THAN They’ll think you’re a twit if you do that …
– the overriding importance of hard measures may not be a value everyone shares RATHER THAN You’re the only silly bugger obsessed with measuring everything that moves.

  • WONDERING – a useful and equally non-threatening variation on the questioning approach is to appear to be questioning oneself, or wondering ( I wonder if there’s an alternative perspective here … I wonder what employers would think of this … I wonder what possessed anyone to promote you …) . Well, OK then, maybe not that last one!
  • LISTEN, OBSERVE, VALIDATE, ENQUIRE (LOVE) – we can bring together many of the above principles in this routine for demonstrating supportive challenge. It reminds us to listen carefully to what is being proposed, demonstrate we have listened by making an observation, acknowledge the validity of the other person’s view, and then offer our challenge in the form of a question ( Yes, OK Harry, you’re arguing in favour of Wayne leading this project, as I understand it, because you think a newcomer will bring fresh ideas, and that’s certainly a fair assumption. I wonder is there an alternative view here, which is that our project leader needs to be well-networked in the local community?)
  • WATCH YOUR ‘BUT’ – no, this is not a warning against back-stabbing colleagues. It is simply an observation that the word ‘but’ can act as a bit of a red rag to a bull when challenging others. It can undo a constructive challenge by making all that went before it seem like insincere flannel. In the example above we could have said BUT I wonder is there an alternative … It’s a small point, but to the listener it may make the difference between coming across as contradiction or an attempt to build upon ideas.

Why are the skills of constructive challenge important to your college? Well, unless people are able to experiment with new ideas, challenge the status quo and engage in creative dialogue, without all this being seen as threatening, it is unlikely that goals around innovation and continuous improvement and learning will be fully met. And that means the competition will leave you behind …

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