Session Summary: Communicating Over The Great Divide

Tiffany Jackson, Director of Membership Services, AASB

Building upon John Sedor’s presentation that stressed the importance of good communication in cultivating a positive relationship between the board and superintendent, Tiffany Jackson delved into the potential repercussions of avoiding awkward discussions, and the mechanics of how to have successful conversations.

Relationships are always evolving, Jackson said, and will grow together or apart based on the last written or spoken interaction. Avoiding difficult conversations, such as sending an email or text because you didn’t want to have an actual conversation, delivering a message to a group that pertains only to one person, or hoping someone else will raise an issue so you don’t have to, can have negative consequences.

Continually steering clear of hard to discuss topics can create resentment, grudges, and marginalization among board members, as well as the loss of good faith and trust of the community. Board members should strive to set an example of good governance practices through their conduct toward one another.

Jackson offered some tips to improve interactions. Before beginning a conversation:

  • Consider the different ways it may play out.
  • Consider what reactions you may receive, and how you might respond in each case. If it helps, practice with another person beforehand.
  • Work to untangle your emotions from the subject matter.

Practice makes perfect

Practicing what you’re going to say with another person can help separate your emotions from the issue. Sometimes you have to agree to disagree, but you have to agree that as a board you are all part of a team that is doing what’s best for kids.

Communication Cues

Non-verbal communication can be just as important as verbal communication. Posture, gestures, expressions, and eye behavior all provide cues that impact a conversation. Posture can determine the degree of interest or attention, status, and relationship of the communicator. Gestures send clear messages to the listener. Positive gestures include smiling, leaning in and showing palms. Negative gestures include crossing arms and having palms down. Eye contact varies by culture. Be cognizant of the communication norms of the culture you’re in.

Starting with the end in mind

Define the outcome beforehand. Clarify the purpose of the conversation and what you are hoping to accomplish by having it. Move towards the conflict by adknowledging personal responsibility and defining the outcome for the other party.


Listen and ask questions. Be comfortable with pauses in the conversation, and validate the other person’s experience.


Having difficult conversations with board colleagues communicates value, reveals blind spots, inncreases trust and respect, clarifies the future, and provides growth opportunities.

Board Meeting Behavior

If a speaker is out of hand or using inflammatory language, Robert’s Rules can help members retain respectful rapport during board meetings and in executive sessions. Roberts Rules also allows everyone to speak once before someone is called upon a second time. When a board member is out of line in a board meeting, do not be afraid as a board member to hold that board member accountable.

Sometimes difficult conversations mean disagreeing with one another. Healthy tension comes with being a united group, and what you think is often best expressed with your individual vote.

We should strive to model the behavior that we teach our students, and implement it into our work as boards. Good communication builds good relationships and creates a higher functioning board that is more effective for the district, and for the students and families we serve.