Teachers Need Strategies for Dealing With Difficult Conversations

No one likes difficult conversations, but as a teacher, you cannot avoid them. Whether it’s a disaffected student, unprofessional colleague or an unreasonable parent, your time will come.

These conversations will be uncomfortable, but they also offer you a chance to grow. The key is to prepare for the inevitable and conduct yourself properly when the dreaded conversation happens. Here’s how to do that:

Stick to the facts

The emotional nature of difficult conversations — where someone feels picked on or under attack — makes them particularly challenging. While you cannot control or account for people’s emotional reactions, you do have the opportunity to share the facts (and just the facts).

Prepare a written list, refer to it during your discussion and stress that these facts compelled you to have this conversation. Be careful not to treat your opinions as facts. Stick to observable things you have seen for yourself.

If you want to recount how other people feel, do so cautiously and be sure to note that feelings aren’t facts, but that you felt they were worth mentioning.

Stay in the middle

Do not pick a side if the conversation is about a conflict between people or groups. You need to fall right in the middle — otherwise you’ll be accused of unfairly representing one side over another.

This may be hard to resist, especially if one side is clearly in the wrong, but avoiding bias prevents people from justifying their behavior. Plus, choosing to support one person over another may come back to haunt you if the person you supported eventually ends up in the wrong.

Prepare for emotion

Tears, raised voices and anger are regular features of difficult conversations. You may have to halt the meeting if the other person needs a moment to compose themselves (always keep tissues nearby). If they need to, let them take a timeout to walk some emotion off or perhaps come back at a later date.

Being flexible and focused on a good outcome are far more important than your scheduling needs or deadlines. As uncomfortable as it may be, you might just need to sit there as the person takes the time to feel the emotion of the conversation, and then proceed from there.

Talk solutions

Difficult conversations aren’t about hammering the other person. Instead, they are all about coming to a common and workable solution that helps everyone to grow and move past the situation. After the initial facts are laid out for inspection and discussed, move on to solving the problem that precipitated the conversation to begin with.

Sometimes people go on and on about the problem and fail to get to what needs to be changed. Focus on that and perhaps go so far as to have a written plan come from the conversation. Things tend to become “real” when they are written down.

Give things time to settle in

Hard conversations can be difficult for both sides to process. Often the other person will agree and nod during your talk, but they aren’t really listening to you. Rather, they are trying to process what you’re telling them. It’s only later when they’ve had a chance to think about it that they might come back to you with questions and concerns.

Just because they seem to accept what you’re saying, that doesn’t mean that they get it. Be ready for a follow-up conversation and have all of your notes with you. Difficult topics often require multiple conversations.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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