Thursday / May 23

Achieving Shared Accountability Through Hard Conversations: A Q&A with Jennifer Abrams

Jen Abrams

Shared leadership requires trust, and trust requires that we deliver on our promises to each other and to ourselves. Teams that have a high level of trust are able to hold members accountable. But what do you do when a colleague, leader, or subordinate is not contributing in a positive way?

You have to do what many of us dread doing and will avoid at all cost: you have to talk to them about it.

Research has shown the importance of collective skills, and one of those skills is to be able to communicate in challenging moments. The good news is that such conversations don’t have to be confrontational. Jennifer Abrams has facilitated and coached thousands of educators on having hard conversations throughout her career as an educational consultant and former district professional development leader. In her webinar “Unpacking Hard Conversations: Some Whats, Whens, and What-Ifs?,” Jen shares tools and resources to help you become a more confident and compassionate communicator in challenging interactions. You can watch the webinar here.

We interviewed Jen to find out more on how to navigate hard conversations to achieve shared accountability, plus her upcoming appearance at the Women in Education conference this fall.


Q: Given that this is August and the topic of the Corwin Connect this month is “shared leadership,” how can we start off the school year on the right foot and make sure we are having productive conversations amongst staff?

I am a big believer in clarity before accountability. Be two feet in the present by restating your norms, your goals and the expectations that you set for your staff. I think we often presume that ‘we’ve said it before’ and that will be enough. We don’t realize that staff has moved around, are working in different groups, and that newer members of the faculty need to see that the expectations are for everyone. Then, I suggest, not to forget that adults also need to be their best adult selves and sometimes need support on how to do so – protocols, norms, strategies, reminders of language that enhances productivity and doesn’t diminish. These are the things we do as we intentionally set up a classroom and we need to do the same for our staff.

Q: In the webinar, you mention the idea of professionalism and the need for all of us to be accountable and have hard conversations with each other. Can you say more about the idea of being a professional?

When I got a teaching credential, I learned how to teach and support students; I didn’t get a credential in how to talk effectively with adults. And research says how critical it is to be able to be collaborative. But what does that mean for the adults in the school? We expect adults to have the mindset of a professional, the skills to communicate maturely, and the capacity to manage conflicts but I didn’t necessarily learn that in my teacher education program and others might not have either. We need to unpack what the word professional means – what cognitive skills, social skills and psychological skills that entails.

I also know that generationally our idea of how to play well with others and be a professional at work has changed over the years. We need to, again, get two feet in the present with what we hope for and expect from our colleagues in order to support our students.

Q: What’s the most important thing to keep in mind before you engage in a hard conversation?

I always ask myself, “Am I sure we are on the same page?” And if that isn’t the case, and you haven’t had a ‘clarifying conversation’ then have one of those first. We expect so much is understood when we throw out big words – engage, collaborate, differentiate, inclusivity – and I am not sure we all know what that means in practice in concrete ways.

So if you are on the same page, great. Now ask yourself, “Can I say what I want to say in a humane way?” (No, “you are a pain to work with” for example) and then do I have an answer to the question, “What do you want me to do about it?” I think that having ideas for next steps moves us into the future, shows the problem is unsolvable and allows the person to move on.

Q: What happens when a person isn’t ready to listen to you or gets defensive? What then?

I have many answers to that question in more detail in Hard Conversations Unpacked: the Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs, but if the person is defensive and comes back at you with anger, you might say, “From your vantage point, this might not seem like it is worthy of discussion. But, the impact you have has made it difficult for others. I feel I have a responsibility to bring it up and as a professional, I believe and imagine you’d want to know while you didn’t intend to do something, there was an impact.” There are so many more responses in the book – when someone yells, when someone says “The District always…” or “You are so sensitive.” And it is just good to know that defensiveness is oftentimes the immediate way others answer and there are ways to respond professionally and keep your cool.

Q: You are presenting at the Women in Education Conference in November. How does what you discuss in this webinar connect with your work at the conference?

I will be working with at least two of the concepts from the webinar in my keynote and in my breakout session. One is the idea that those of us who want to swim in the deep end of the pool as leaders need to be as ‘other focused’ as we can in our change management work and in our communications. How can we see things from the perspectives that aren’t our own, and how does that make us more effective? And how do build our stamina in order to work in organizations over time? How do we build our resilience and our ability to sit in challenging moments? These are just two of the key ideas I will be building on from the webinar this fall when I present at the Women in Education Conference.

Q: What is one strategy or tip that you can leave us with that you didn’t get a chance to mention in the webinar that you could mention here?

I am always sharing with folks to get prepared for a hard conversation by doing Harvard Professor and TED talk speaker Amy Cuddy’s “Power Pose.” She suggests before you head into something in which you need to project credibility that you stand for 2 minutes like Wonder Woman or Superman. Not during, but before. And it will lower your cortisol level and increase your testosterone and you will come across more credibly in your interactions. The trick is to stop standing like that before you enter the room or else you will look a bit too intimidating!


Thank you Jen for taking the time to have this (hopefully not too hard) conversation with us! To learn more about Jen’s process for overcoming communication challenges, check out her best-selling book, Hard Conversations Unpacked, and catch Jen and other leading women educators at the Women in Education Conference on November 2-3, 2017, in Los Angeles, California.


About Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams is an international educational and communications consultant who trains and coaches teachers, administrators and others on successful instructional practices, new teacher support, supervision and evaluation, generational savvy, having hard conversations and effective collaboration skills. She is a former high school English teacher, new teacher coach, and professional developer for Palo Alto Unified School District in Palo Alto, CA. She can be followed on Twitter @jenniferabrams.

Written by

Charline is the Marketing Manager for Equity and Professional Learning at Corwin.

No comments

leave a comment