Crucial Skills®

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Russell Virgin and Improving Generations through Crucial Skills

Can teaching crucial skills create a ripple effect that changes generations? For Russell Virgin, that beautiful concept is reality. As comprehensive services deputy director for Early Learning Essentials, Russell facilitates courses for 160 employees across three Utah counties who, in turn, model and share the skills with the nearly 600 children and families with whom they work.

“If we’re serious about helping families overcome poverty and become successful and supportive parents for their kids, then there’s some real barriers for the families we’re working with,” he said.

Early Learning Essentials (formerly Mountainland Head Start) runs a federally funded Head Start program for children who come from low-income families and/or have disabilities. The program provides preschool, health, mental health, and nutrition services for children and social services for their families.

Virgin is certified in all five Crucial Learning courses, but he primarily facilitates the two Crucial Conversations courses for his entire staff, alternating between Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue and the add-on version of Crucial Conversations for Accountability. He’s taught Getting Things Done and The Power of Habit to his leadership and management teams as well, and he specifically trains family advocates in Crucial Influence.

“I love each course,” he said. “They each bring such a different set of tools to our staff. It’s such a critical set of skills to build the culture we want here.”

The challenge, Virgin said, is finding time to get everyone trained—particularly teachers, assistant teachers, and aides who can’t step away from the kids in their classrooms for days during the school year. Instead, they provide a stipend to bring them in during summer, and Virgin coaches staff through challenging conversations as needed throughout the year.

He’s also implemented monthly follow-up sessions to continue learning beyond the course.

“It just feels like a single training’s insufficient for them unless they’re really intentional about it themselves,” he said. “So we come up with practice scenarios or use some of the ones we’ve gotten from Crucial Learning, and we work through them, have people ask questions, and then practice. Each month we’re practicing different scenarios.”

Although Virgin doesn’t facilitate sessions for the families they help, he finds that arming family advocates with an understanding of the Six Sources of Influence makes a difference in how they work with their clients.

“They go into the homes of our families, and they’ll talk with them about their needs and their strengths,” Virgin said. “When they’re doing that, one of the tools we’re trying to have them use is the Crucial Influence model to work through the barriers to their major life challenges. They’ll go through the different sources of influence and talk about those crucial moments and vital behaviors and everything.”

Creating a Crucial Conversations culture benefits everyone within the organization, he said.

“My management team has learned to resolve parent concerns quickly and respectfully,” he said. “When a parent concern escalates and they speak with one of the leadership or management team members, they often feel heard and respected no matter what their concern is.”

6 thoughts on “Russell Virgin and Improving Generations through Crucial Skills”

  1. J. Lynn Jones

    This is incredibly inspiring. Nice work Russell and the rest of your team!

    1. Russell Virgin

      J. Lynn my friend, how are you? Thank you so much. We learned from the best and are just trying to encourage others on the great path you helped us get started on. I hope you are well.

  2. Kurtis Pugh

    What a pleasant surprise to see one of my early career mentors featured here. I was one of the Family Advocates that Russell trained in Crucial Influence (Influencer back then). I still use the model as I strive to support children, families, and employees in a different Head Start program here in Idaho. Because of the excellent training from Russell Virgen, I have been a part of our team here bringing Crucial Conversations to Community Council of Idaho. I am now a certified trainer in Crucial Conversations and am hopeful that we will bring the other courses to our program in the future. Thank you Russell for your teaching, mentoring, and friendship. I hope you are well.
    -Kurtis Pugh

    1. Russell Virgin

      Kurtis, it is amazing to see your name pop up here. I am glad you are doing well and carrying these principles forward. I am sure you are doing amazing things there in Idaho. Keep up the great work.

  3. Taylor Reed

    What recommendations would you have for a parent who’s taken crucial conversations as part of corporate learning requirements, who is interested in trying to pilot a version of crucial conversations for kids at their child’s private school? Child is almost 8 and struggling to master big emotions and communicate better, and I’m looking for ways to help him personally and hopefully make a bigger impact in the community as well.

    1. Russell Virgin

      Taylor, if you are asking specifically for an eight year-old trying master their stories, the challenge is to teach them these principles in a way that is developmentally appropriate and connects with their understanding. At 8, kids are often very egocentric and self-focused. That’s normal and healthy. Developmentally they some times have a harder time recognizing the motives and feelings of others. They can even have a very strong negative attribution bias. Even with probing questions it may be challenging for them to understand other people’s positive intent, unless guided by a skilled adult. Their limited experience reduces the number of possible options they can think of.

      For example, if a child gets upset about something someone said to them, when you ask them why the other person said it they will often attribut negative intent and have a hard time exploring others options. A good place to start is by giving them some possible motivations (good and bad) and asking what evidence they have for them. They need much more help exploring the options.

      Additionally, 8 is still relatively young and your child is still learning where emotion comes from. They may still believe that the emotions they feel are because of other’s behavior. By exploring other people’s potential motives and pointing out how they feel when they consider different options, they will be building a good foundation for understanding their role in managing their emotions. That’s just an idea of place to start.

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