Relational Capacity

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Coming from the Midwest–the land of cold manners–and being a younger, aggressive administrator in my 20s, I was not much for small talk.  I’ve acted like a jerk.  My kinder colleagues would refer to me as having “yankee etiquette,” but I just think I was insensitive.  I thought schoolwork was about doing a job and the need for relationships was overrated.  This is your job, this is what we’re paid to do, so let’s just do it.

After 6 years as a secondary principal, these thoughts cause me considerable embarrassment.  Having spent time around colleagues, learning the realities of their life around them, understanding the significant struggles they have all overcome, I understand more about how teachers see their own instruction.  By appreciating challenges of their reality, I demonstrate empathy.  Through empathy, we build a connection helping us communicate more effectively because of our professional relationship centered on “trust.”

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey (1989) famously advised leaders in all fields to “seek to understand, then to be understood.”  The absence of this principle likely accounts for the failure of an evaluative or feedback based conversation.  In order to become a stronger leader and contribute to the growth of others, leaders must “connect.”  A lack of connection acts as a roadblock to feedback.  All the training, expertise, and novel observations in the world won’t matter if a teacher can’t “receive” the feedback.

This is no secret to educators because of our work with students.  Educators know in order to help a student best learn and receive feedback; we make an effort to develop a sense of rapport with them.  When students feel a sense of caring and genuine concern for their well being, they invest their attention and commitment to what the teacher asks of them.  In essence, by showing care and concern for the safety, success, and/or happiness of others, we create a sense of followership amongst them.  A Forbes post (Prince, 2013) shared rapport is taken from the French word rapporter–meaning “to carry back.”  In order to help others “carry back” feedback to grow and learn, we must use rapport to develop relational capacity.

Hoffman and Rivard (2008) define relational capacity asbuilding positive and trusting relationships so people work together without being threatened by individuals pursuing their own agendas” (p. 10).  To take this concept further, relational capacity helps the observer and teacher dialogue in a safe, authentic, and humane manner.  Although varying in severity and memory, all feedback stings.  We all have experiences receiving feedback like a gut punch.  Perhaps we deserved that feeling, yet perhaps not.  By putting our agendas aside and focusing on teacher growth, we provide feedback without causing injury to those serving our students and colleagues.

Relational capacity is the offspring of servant leadership, built through placing the needs of others before self and helping advance others towards their goals.  Relational capacity is the product of exploring needs, helping others reach their goals, and an abundance of listening.  Investing time and effort into others, we increase the chances others will permit us to extend beyond our formal authority and allow us to influence their professional growth.

In the absence of relational capacity, we find resistance, closed ears, feigned agreements, and injured egos.  With it, we find open ears, conversation, and growth.  Developing awareness of relational capacity helps the observer craft the right feedback so it is received well by the observed.

Of course, there are non-negotiables when it comes to the expectations for learning in a classroom.  Certainly, our students must have a safe and nurturing environment focused on learning.  Clearly, our students deserve nothing less than an education leading to future, college, and career success.  As Kim Marshall (2009) states in Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation, “A leader, silent on mediocrity, speaks loudly.”

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