University of Washington psychologist John Gottman—introduced in Malcom Gladwell’s Blink (2005)—has a seemingly amazing ability: Given 15 minutes with any married couple, he can tell you with near certainty—90% accuracy, in fact—whether or not they will stay married or end up divorced.
How does Gottman do it?
By carefully monitoring—second-by-second in laboratory experiments—the emotions attached to the interactions that occur between spouses.
Over time, Gottman and his associates have developed a sophisticated emotional coding system, using nuanced observations and digital sensors to identify the seemingly fleeting moments of deception, defensiveness, contempt, neutrality, sadness, and support that occur during conversations.
Gottman convincingly argues that these fleeting moments of emotion—even when observed for a short period of time—are evidence of the larger pattern of interactions that “arises naturally and automatically” and that inevitably defines any human relationship.
While Gottman’s strategies for predicting the long-term stability of relationships may seem overly complex—he is, after all, strapping couples into sets of electrodes and using computers to spot patterns in huge sets of data collected by colleagues and interns—they are actually more approachable than you think.
Essentially, Gottman argues, all he is doing is tracking the emotional ups and downs in a couple’s interactions.
What’s more, when predicting the long-term stability of a relationship, all emotions are NOT created equal.
In fact, Gottman has discovered that he can accurately predict the strength of a relationship without any gadgets and gizmos simply by looking for just four emotions in a conversation between two people: Defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt.
And of these four emotions, the presence of contempt between two people is the single best predictor of the inevitable demise of a relationship.
He explains the power of contempt like this:
“You would think that criticism would be the worst because criticism is a global condemnation of a person’s character. Yet contempt is qualitatively different from criticism… Contempt is any statement made from a higher level. A lot of the time it’s an insult…it’s trying to put that person on a lower plane than you. It’s hierarchical. Contempt is closely related to disgust, and what disgust and contempt are about is completely rejecting and excluding someone from the community. (Kindle Location 408-417)
What does all this mean for the principals of PLCs?
Perhaps most importantly, the quality of the relationships between members of professional learning teams matter more than you may think.
I’ve spoken to dozens of principals and school leaders about their strategies for organizing teachers into learning teams over the past few years and most tend to place content first when making team assignments.
And in MOST cases, this makes perfect sense.
Content-specific teams are the most effective because they allow teachers to study student learning efficiently. Collective inquiry is just plain easier when you are studying practice with people who teach the same subject as you do.
But some of those same principals seem to profess a blind commitment to content-specific teams under ANY circumstance.
“What if you’ve got two teachers who just CAN’T work together productively?” I’ll often ask.
“They’ll just have to figure it out,” is the most common reply. “I’m not asking them to like each other. I’m asking them to work professionally with one another.
If Gottman’s lessons about marriages are translated to other human relationships, though, it might literally be impossible for two teachers to “just figure it out.”
As he explains:
“Some [interactions] go up, some go down, but once they start going down, toward negative emotion, ninety-four percent will continue going down. They start on a bad course and they can’t correct it. I don’t think of this as just a slice in time. It’s an indication of how they view their whole relationship.” (Kindle Location 373-378)
Long story short: Principals of high-functioning PLCs are rarely COMPLETELY committed to organizational concepts.
Instead, they’re completely committed to individuals and relationships.
While they know that the most efficient and effective learning teams are those that include teachers working in the same subject areas and grade levels, they also recognize that NO learning team is efficient and effective if the relationships between individuals are characterized by defensiveness, criticism, stonewalling or contempt.
The question, then, is what are you doing to monitor the quality of the relationships in your building?
Are you giving regular team surveys designed to elicit evidence of unhealthy perceptions of peers? Are you sitting in on meetings and looking for obvious signs of troublesome behaviors?
Are you engaging in ongoing conversations with every teacher about the emotional—instead of the academic—work of their learning teams?
Are you asking teachers to reflect on the kinds of peers that they hold in high regard and then using those reflections when organizing your collaborative groups?
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