Bad News: How To Manage A Difficult Conversation

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Difficult Conversations


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How can you deliver a difficult message, effectively?

Such is the busy nature of school life, rarely are difficult conversations conducted in a climate where the process can move calmly or at a steady pace.

On the receiving end of a difficult message…

Have you ever found yourself on the receiving end of a message like this one?

“Ross,  I need to bring to your attention an incident and show you the following statement which has been provided to me by a (delete the applicable: pupil/parent/member of the public/colleague.”

I have. It hurts. It can be embarrassing or sometimes, it can be unexpected and offensive. When it comes to managing conflict, I’ve found myself in all types of situations as a receiver and as a giver and how I managed these situations as a teacher and school leader (and most recently as a parent!) has varied significantly throughout my career. Unless conversations are carefully engineered, individual thoughts and clarity for both the receiver and the giver are less likely to be well-managed and are likely to be emotive rather than logical. 

Are you supported?

In one difficult conversation situation as a teacher, I was supported by my union after a parental complaint. Naturally, I left the meeting feeling aggrieved, but thankfully, with very clear expectations. As a school leader, I found moving from a position where I was a leader of a small group of staff to being responsible for all 200+ staff and 1,500+ pupils.  As one would expect, the shifting responsibility was dramatic! I had no formal training, but lots of support from the headteachers I worked with… One of the greatest needs of the middle leaders I meet on my travels is to have formal training in managing difficult conversations.

What causes conflict?

In an educational setting, a conflict might be defined as ‘challenging’ for many reasons. Therefore, it is important that every leader has a good definition of the type of behaviours that lead to a tricky situation, not only with pupils but with adults too.  When conflict does occur, a clear definition should be used to offer support to the people involved, and this is likely to follow the Teachers’ Standards or a school’s code of conduct for employees.  Critically, how these conversations are conducted is what matters most.

How to manage a difficult conversation?

If you find yourself in a position where you have to provide a solution to managing conflict, and the chances are that this will be high as a school leader, then not only will you need some training and tacit knowledge, but how good you are at having those difficult chats with colleagues will be your legacy towards sustaining credible leadership for the future. The first time is always a steep learning curve, so it is critical to have a dress rehearsal to ensure the conversation is clear, objective and that you adhere to the facts.

1. Have the conversation sooner rather than later

Too often we postpone the difficult conversation because we know that it won’t be easy, and potentially we drain our own energies and emotions. While it is important not to rush into something, procrastination simply makes the situation worse. Keep the matter private and professional.

2. Stick to the facts

Describe carefully the behaviour that has led you to speak to the individual. Have all the facts ready. Describe the impact of the behaviour on others, for example, students, colleagues or yourself. Ensure the person understands why there has to be a change in behaviour. Always have to hand professional standards and school policies for reference or for non-verbal cues. If you do need to quote from them, allow adequate time for the individual to read the details before responding. Hopefully, this level of detail won’t be needed as an initial conversation is usually all that’s required to rectify most situations. 

3. Focus on the future

Talk about what is going to be different in the future. Depending on the nature of the conversation, this could be specific procedures that are required to be put in place, or simply a verbal commitment from the individual to take what has been said and act on it. I believe the PPIPL script is an excellent tool for fast, focused and professional conversations.

4. Show respect

No matter how important the issue is, always ensure that you show respect for the individual as a person. You are taking issue only with the behaviours and not the individual. Give the member of staff time to digest, respond and reflect.

5. Allow time

Even where the issue is perfectly clear and must be addressed, ensure the individual’s voice is heard. While you are dealing with a particular issue, you are also modelling a process that shows respect for all. Most importantly, the person involved leaves with clear expectations and a potential resolution or consequence.

6. Keep tight control of your emotions

Don’t allow your emotions to get the better of you. To raise justifiable concerns in an unjustifiable manner simply creates more problems. If the receiving person makes the issue about you, remind them of the facts. Always be professional, and remember that the other person is not enjoying this either! Oh, and always have a box of tissues in close proximity, and learn how best to respond or end the conversation if needed.

7. Reflect

Beware of replaying conversations again and again in your head; what you should have said or not said – this can be exhausting. Accept what is done and move on. Sometimes a small follow-up conversation or nod of the head is enough when next seeing or meeting with the same colleague.

If you recognise an issue with a colleague, you should talk to them honestly. It’s a matter of professional respect.

5 thoughts on “Bad News: How To Manage A Difficult Conversation

  1. Thanks for the great tips. Such little things can have such a big impact on our day at school. This reminds me of a great new book out there: The Subtle Side of Teaching

  2. I think a key here, as a Leader, is to ensure that this moment is part of a longer set of dialogues. If you already have a positive relationship with a colleague the ‘difficult’ moments are easier to manage. Commit to having ‘easy’ conversations regularly with all staff – invest in the bank – this builds an ethos of trust and support which will hold you in good stead at the more stressful and complex moments.

  3. Work with the union reps. Don’t see them as the enemy. All NEU. Reps have considerable training of excellent quality.
    Train your staff both teachers and leaders. Better stop having such hierarchical divides

  4. Be thoughtful as to the timing of the conversation. Catching a colleague first thing at the start of the week can be difficult for them as it might weigh on them for the whole week. Just before a weekend can give time for reflection/ or on a Thursday so that colleagues can pop in and clarify/ touch base on a Friday if they need to. This will vary depending on the situation and team member- emotional intelligence is key here. I’ve also found giving them an opportunity first to share why I might have wanted to have a chat with them to be productive too- often the colleague will be aware of an area they need support with and there are almost always valid reasons as to why they’ve been struggling. Actively listening to and engaging with these is always productive and gives you an insight into their ways of working. Ultimately, show that you care and are there to support.

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