How to Handle Difficult Conversations in School

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 13 March 2017
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

Being a school leader inevitably brings difficult encounters, particularly with parents and staff. Getting these conversations right is a crucial part of successful school management. During my time as Regional Officer with ASCL this was a topic which came up a lot in casework and it was clear that there was a need to support school leaders with appropriate training. I worked in particular with Michele Berry of Charis Consultancy and her workshops on managing difficult conversations demonstrated clearly the importance of mastering the skills necessary to be an effective manager.

In dealing with parental interviews one of the best pieces of advice I got was to ensure that parents had their say without interruption and to resist the instinctive temptation to immediately rush to the defence of the school. Every parent has a deep need to stand up for their child – even when they are in the wrong and it is wise not to frustrate this by closing down the initial, sometimes angry tirade before seeking an agreed way forward. A significant new dimension of this work for today’s generation of school leaders involves social media. Amy Cook, a senior researcher at The Key, which provides leadership and management support to schools in England, reports that recently they have been fielding more questions about what to do when parental complaints appear on social media. Suggestions for pro- active strategies include, inviting parents with genuine grievances to use a more appropriate channel like the complaints procedure. In a case where comments are abusive towards members of staff, keeping any records of abuse by taking screen shots, logging the time, date and web address and asking the person responsible to take the material down are recommended. If this fails it is a matter of contacting the social networking site to have the content removed. Good practice is also for schools to clarify expectations in a social media use policy .

Experience has also taught me that it is equally important to get difficult conversations with staff right. There is a lot of advice available to help develop better approaches and coping mechanisms. A common area of potential conflict between leaders and staff is implementing change.

John F. Eller and Sheila A. Eller write in 2013 in the Educational Leadership journal, that school leaders face challenges in implementing change when one or several teachers are resistant or difficult. For a school to move forward they suggest that the leader must attend to the atmosphere and culture in the school.  A teacher who resists change - sometimes covertly - or who is hard to work with can inject negativity into that culture and a small number of teachers can derail change.

They make some general points in terms of leadership style which may help avoid the necessity of these difficult encounters in the first place.

They recommend having an open communication channel with the staff to ensure that you hear about concerns, no matter how unpleasant or trivial. When staff share these concerns with you try to be open and receptive. It is important to show that you're really interested in listening to their complaints or worries and will use their perspective to guide change. Have open staff discussion sessions where staff feel able to talk about both the positives and the challenges associated with new ideas; and keep the discussion focused on the topic, not the personalities.

If however negative opposition persists, they recommend meeting privately with the person to discuss this behaviour and find out what the teacher's issues are. They especially suggest developing a script for what you will say in the meeting which will keep you on track and better able to deal with the emotions that may come up. If a group of difficult staff has formed, then you'll need to decide whether to meet with just the "leader" or with all of them. It may be better to divide and conquer and talk to them individually. On the other hand, if you think the first one you talk with will warn (and possibly energise) the others, then meet with all at once.

American psychologist Preston Ni suggests some useful strategies if the difficult conversations ensue.

Firstly stay cool!If you can maintain self-control it avoids escalation of the problem. Your ability to make careful, measured judgements is better if you do not react emotionally. If necessary “kick for touch” and suggest a pause, to allow the situation to become calmer. Next, it may be necessary to, “rise above it all” and just listen even if something important is at stake. Trying to change or convince a person who’s negatively entrenched may not be the best strategy, but you at least can let them have their say and avoid accusations that you have ignored them. If your position on an issue is carefully researched and principled then keep your eye on the best interest of the school.

In such circumstances, it is best to be pro-active and focus on problem-solving rather than reacting and try to seek a way forward. Avoid personalising other people's behaviours and try to put yourself in the difficult individual’s shoes. As long as we’re being reasonable and considerate, difficult behaviours from others say a lot more about them than they do about us. In every conversation, there are two elements present: The relationship with the person, and the issue being discussed. Be careful and sensitive with the person but firm on the issue.

Whenever two people are communicating effectively they take turns leading and following. If someone is monopolising the lead and setting a negative tone about “what’s wrong”, you can interrupt this behaviour and recover the lead simply by changing the subject and using questions to redirect the conversation.

Talking through consequences of implementing/not implementing changes can compel the difficult individual to shift from obstruction to cooperation.

Finally, if any encounter deteriorates beyond professional norms, be sure to place yourself in a position where you can safely protect yourself, whether it’s standing tall on your own, having other people present to witness and support, or keeping a paper trail of inappropriate behaviour by the other person. In cases of physical, verbal, or emotional abuse, take legal/professional advice.  In such circumstances, no one should try to do it alone.


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This article is correct at 13/03/2017

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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