Connecting with the County Staff

Recently I was visiting with a group of staff about professional development within the organization. It was mentioned that there is a need to help field Program Specialists understand their role with the county paid staff. As I have thought about this situation and the question about roles, I decided, as usual, it is not a simple response. However, I would like to try to address it from a facilitative coaching perspective. You may or may not find this perspective useful and I would welcome additional thinking about this role.

It is really clear as I listen to staff describe these relationships that they definitely are new and that there are no predetermined expectations or guidelines for how to interact with each other. In fact, with all the different and varied county positions in existence, there may be a real opportunity to be creative and explore how best to work together. And this may vary from county to county. While it may be somewhat exciting to think about creating new and varied working relationships, the down side of this is the time it will take to develop individual and separate relationships in each county.

Thus, the word that comes to mind for me is “curiosity.” How can I develop an effective and productive working relationship? What can I do to build a working relationship that will benefit the clientele I serve as well as the organization? And since curiosity is fundamental to the facilitative coaching perspective, I think this perspective may have some ideas that can help in this situation.

The facilitative coaching approach starts with inquiry; creating genuine questions that we ask both ourselves and others we are working with to help provide direction. These questions come in two forms; open-ended and closed-ended. Open-ended questions allow for self-observation and reflection. What do I need to do about the situation? What is my part in the relationship? What do I bring to the dialogue? Where do I fit into resolving the issue, concern, or problem? What am I thinking and feeling about the situation? Closed-ended questions cause a clear conscious choice. Do I do A or B? Am I willing to provide this or that? Which direction/solution/idea appeals to you?

Both kinds of questions are important in developing and creating new relationships. The open-ended questions create needed information to be able to make decisions. Closed-ended questions lead people to commitment. When creating a working relationship you need both information and commitment to reach the desired result.

So how does this work from the Program Specialist perspective? If I’m a Program Specialist housed in the field and serving a certain geographical region or regions, I will first need to make contact with the individual county staff with which I work. I may find that in a county one of the staff members I work with has a job description that is very content oriented and in another county a staff member has more of a coordinating position. In the first county, the county staff member may have the expectation that he or she will do some of the program delivery in his or her content expertise. That county staff member may see her or his relationship with the Program Specialist as a co-presenter. In the second county, the county staff member may see his or her function as one of handling logistics and totally expecting the Program Specialist to provide the content expertise.

However, if I’m not interacting with the county staff members and asking the right kinds of questions, then I’m not certain what the expectations are and what function I need to provide. This can lead to confusion, misunderstanding, and even a breakdown in the program delivery. To prevent this negative outcome, I better have a list of open-ended and closed-ended questions ready and willing to practice them when I’m interacting with the county staff. The questions will help clarify the options and avoid the chaos that could result from miscommunication.

If you are interested in the facilitative coaching perspective, you might want to review Facilitative Coaching: A Toolkit for Expanding Your Repertoire and Achieving Lasting Results by Dale Schwarz and Anne Davidson.

In my next post, I want to share with you the professional development ideas and plans that we are working on for Extension staff and the Extension Council members.

Until next time, keep asking those useful questions and stay curious.