Swimming in the Deep End with Jennifer Abrams

In was wonderful to attend a Learning Forward Ontario and Ontario Principals’ Council event on August 20, where Jennifer Abrams, author of Having Hard Conversations shared insights from her new book called “Swimming in the Deep End” with Ontario teachers, coaches, principals and other school and district leaders. Jennifer really makes her practice come to life by walking the talk: connecting with her audience, building trust by sharing lots of relatable stories, and showing some of her vulnerability as a coach and a co-learner.  It’s not very often that a facilitator from out of the country takes the time to dive into the Ontario context the way that Jennifer did to make her information and stories so meaningful to us, and I felt deeply appreciative of that!

The learning was focused on the kinds of resistance we sometimes face, especially in times when the people we serve feel vulnerable and disempowered.  Jennifer provided a lot of background information to give us an opportunity to reflect on why this resistance might occur: lack of trust, communication or collaboration issues, cultural implications and generational considerations, to name a few.  While the day was packed with amazing information and a book list to keep me following up for ages to come, two key areas really stood out as relevant to my current situation and the professional learning that I’m engaged in right now: asking the right questions and understanding the difference between problems to solve and polarities to manage.

I’m an optimist by nature and, I believe, a better listener than talker. My natural tendency is to ask more than tell, to listen and reflect, more than direct.  I loved the lists of questions that Jennifer provided to add to my repertoire, both in the kinds of questions and sentence starters that will help broach difficult topics, and to support reflection on my role as a collaborative team member.

Two that stand out for me involve questions that I’ll be keeping front of mind as I begin a role in a very new educational culture and context this year: 

  1. Am I aware of my assumptions and values and know when they are getting in the way of moving forward with my colleagues?
  2. Am I able to stand outside myself and see how I might be impacting others or be seen by others? If so, how? 

 I also found the opening quote that she shared, very powerful: 

“Our conversations invent us. Through our speech and our silence, we become smaller or larger selves. Through our speech and our silence, we diminish or enhance the other person, and we narrow or expand the possibilities between us. How we use our voice determines the quality of our relationships, who we are in the world, and what the world can be and might become. Clearly, a lot is at stake here.”

Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Connection

The other strong connection I made during the day was about Problems to Solve vs. Polarities to Manage. This reminded me so much of the wicked problems that face us as educators and the need to develop problem solving models that involve really deeply understanding the issues and empathizing with and involving all stakeholders along the way. I liked hearing how we need to move away from ‘Either-Or” thinking to ‘Yes, And’ approaches.  Jennifer pointed us to the work of Jane Kise in Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences: Polarity Thinking in Our Schools and I think this will be the place for me to start in follow-up learning to this amazing day! Thanks Jennifer!


    • Good question, Myra…and I should have added some examples! I’ve added these two up top…related to participating in collaborative school community:
      -Am I aware of my assumptions and values and know when they are getting in the way of moving forward with my colleagues?
      -Am I able to stand outside myself and see how I might be impacting others or be seen by others? If so, how?

      I also liked: Do I use positive presuppositions when coming together with a given group – presuming positive intention and purpose?

      Around speaking up despite discomfort there were these:

      -I’m not willing to agree with that generalization.
      -I have a different opinion, but I’m willing to listen and share.
      -Here’s an example of how I feel differently…

      And…if you need more strength to face the most difficult situations…maybe it’s the Wonder Woman pose that will work!


  1. Especially as a school leader, knowing the difference between problems and polarities must be critical. Are you willing to share some examples to illustrate? (Perhaps not from your own practice, but more generic from colleagues, etc.?)


    • Some of the kinds of polarities we were thinking about with Jennifer were: autonomy and collaboration, needs of students and needs of staff, continuity and change, clarity and flexibility, work priorities and home priorities….all complex to manage!


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