Posted by: Tammy Cravit | February 1, 2011

The Right Result, the Right Way

I was involved in a meeting last week concerning an IEP for a student with special educational needs. As parents, teachers and administrators involved with such kids know, the IEP process can often be grueling and fraught with conflict. But the meeting I attended today was different.

For one thing, the administrator (actually, a school psychologist) who was facilitating the meeting did a great job of giving all the stakeholders – teachers, parent, the student herself, and other school personnel involved with the meeting – a chance to be heard. More importantly, he checked in with each of them to be sure the team had correctly understood what they wanted to say and that each person in the room felt like he or she had been fully heard and understood.

When it was time to hear from the student, the group leader excused himself, and several other staff members from the room. “I don’t want [the student] to come in here to a sea of unfamiliar adult faces,” he said. In this more intimate setting, the student felt more comfortable to express her feelings about the course of action the team was considering.

At the end of the meeting, the team had reached a consensus. We knew what we were going to do, and what the next steps were for each member of the team. But, more importantly, we all felt good about the outcome because we knew our concerns had been heard, understood, and addressed by the team.

I came away from the meeting with this important realization: When dealing with a situation where conflict can arise, process is at least as important as substance.

How can you promote a process which leads to the right results, the right way in your IEP meetings or, for that matter, in other group decisions? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make sure all voices have a chance to be heard. It can be tempting for parents who want a specific outcome for their kids to hear other viewpoints as a challenge. Similarly, professional members of a child’s educational team may wonder why the parent won’t trust their expert judgment. If everyone has a chance to be heard, then everyone will feel more comfortable with and committed to the decisions that are reached, though. Plus, a free flow of information might uncover something that changes the group’s consensus.
  • Make accommodations to keep it feeling safe for everyone. In the IEP meeting I attended, several of the group members excused themselves from the room while the student’s views were heard. This took a certain amount of trust – nobody likes to feel that they’re missing out – but it created a safe space for the student to express herself. Without that safety, the team might not have heard her honest opinion about the actions they were considering, which would have defeated the purpose of asking her input in the first place.
  • Listen with empathy. Particularly when a meeting becomes contentious, it’s important to listen with empathy. This means listening not just to the words people are saying, but to the emotions and needs that underlie those words. I tend to use the tools of Nonviolent Communication to validate and reflect what I’m hearing and to make sure I get to the needs which underlie everyone’s positions. Even if the ultimate decision isn’t what a member of the team wishes for, it’s easier to accept a team’s decisions when you know your concerns have been heard.
  • Be open to new information. We all come into group decision-making settings with our own preconceptions about what outcome we’d like to see, and even about what outcome we think will happen. It’s important to be open to changing your preconceptions if new information justifies it, though. Otherwise, the group ceases to make effective, reality-grounded decisions, and discontent and conflict are sure to arise.

At the end of the day, getting the right outcome is important. But getting the right outcome through a process that supports everyone involved is even better, and is the outcome we all should be striving for.

Cross-posted to What if You Borrow Another Camel?


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