Board-Savvy Superintendent

Speaking the Language of Board Meetings

BY RYAN DONLAN 

During my second year as a high school principal, I witnessed our superintendent swiftly lose her majority of support from the school board over a block scheduling proposal. It wasn’t due to her lack of dedication to the proposal or any damaging evidence presented by opponents. It was simply a communication problem to which I contributed. As if overnight, parents were placing blame where it didn’t belong, interest groups were posturing and school board members were grandstanding.

This scenario will come as no surprise to seasoned superintendents, who are accustomed to handling sensitive issues under distress and responding to all manner of public concerns. While the demanding responsibilities of the position are inescapable, communication breakdown is not.

Upon assuming the superintendency myself elsewhere, I decided to proactively address this risk by employing an innovative tool I discovered during my doctoral studies — the Process Communication Model. Developed by psychologist Taibi Kahler, the model enables its practitioners to understand, motivate and communicate effectively with others. By learning to address the underlying needs of school board members and the public, eliciting positive responses from those who would otherwise undermine support, I was able to encourage collaboration and enhance the decision-making process.

Fitting Responses

The six personality types outlined by this model are Thinker, Persister, Rebel, Promoter, Imaginer and Harmonizer. When in distress, the first four types are most likely to cause communication breakdown in groups. Learning to recognize these personalities and respond to them accordingly is the key to promoting effective communication at school board meetings.

  • Those with strong Thinker energy filter ideas through logic. In distress, they can become controlling and attack that which they see as illogical. However, they are strong problem solvers and thrive when recognized for their contributions.

Advice: Ask for their opinion on what needs to be done and affirm their ideas whenever possible.

  • Those with strong Persister energy filter ideas through their value system. They need time to let an idea percolate and can become hypercritical if pressed to make decisions too quickly. On the other hand, they offer steadfast commitment to that which they do believe.

Advice: Recognize their convictions and remind them that their dedication is valued.

  • Those with strong Rebel energy react quickly to new ideas, often declaring immediate like or extreme dislike when in distress. With playful contact, however, they can be the most creative constituents.

Advice: Offer emotive messages and ask them which aspects of a proposed item they do like.

  • Those with strong Promoter energy like to be in charge and can be manipulative when in distress. Conversely, they can be persuasive and charming — and can sell just about anything.

Advice: Offer your support for something important to them in return for their support of the issue at hand. In other words, it’s okay to make a deal with them.

Game-Saving Tactics

Using this model for communication had a powerful impact on my ability to create and sustain a positive relationship between the schools and the community we served, which, in turn, allowed us to work together more effectively. Had my former superintendent incorporated this approach, I have no doubt she could have mitigated the conflict and might even have been able to save her block scheduling proposal. It would have worked well in bringing about the best in everyone involved in the conversation, as we were all there to support students.

When you communicate with school board members in a language they understand, they leave the meetings feeling better than when they walked in — connected, valued and affirmed.

 

Ryan Donlan, a former superintendent, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind. E-mail: ryan.donlan@indstate.edu. Twitter: @RyanDonlan