How principals should handle difficult conversations

How principals should handle difficult conversations
As every principal knows, schools can often be emotionally-charged environments where tensions between staff, students and parents can often boil over.

As such, knowing how to handle the difficult conversations that come with this territory can mean the difference between a harmonious environment and a chaotic one.

David Leahy, director of Directions Unlimited, writes about a range of topics including staff performance, people related issues and recruitment. The Educator spoke to Leahy to get some tips that principals can consider in light of these challenges.

TE: As every principal knows, schools can often be emotionally-charged environments. What are some tips you would recommend for principals dealing with a dispute between staff members in their school?
The first thing to do is to invite the staff members to meet with you to discuss the issue. Your goal should be to create a dialogue which will help you get to the bottom of the issue and encourage a change in behaviour.

The next step is to prepare. Consider what you’ll say, develop strategies to ensure you remain calm and collected as well as consistent and fair, and even put some thought into the location for the discussion. Studies show that a change in environment can change our thinking, so perhaps consider holding the discussion in a coffee shop or a meeting room instead of your office.

The best approach you can take is to ask questions. Ask open-ended ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions but avoid ‘why’ questions as they can elicit a defensive response.

TE: In a scenario where a parent – upset that their child is being bullied or disadvantaged in some way – confronts the principal in an angry manner, is there a particular approach that you consider to be effective?
When meeting with parents make sure you ask open questions, listen intently and ensure they feel heard.

Remain calm, demonstrate that you’re interested and engaged with their concerns and employ a non-judgmental approach. Identify the issue and reassure the parent that you will take responsibility in line with school policy.

The quality of the conversation can go a long way to easing the parent’s concerns before you’ve even had the chance to address the issue head on.

TE: How about a situation in which a principal is dealing with a distressed student who is making allegations against a fellow peer or staff member? How should such a conversation be initiated and navigated so that it doesn’t go pear-shaped?
Ensure the student feels they’re being heard and taken seriously. Secondly, you will need to assess and determine the validity of the allegation. Unfortunately, these two objectives can contradict each other.

Conduct a one-on-one conversation with the student. It may make sense to hold the conversation somewhere else on school grounds which is less intimidating than your office. Ask questions and let the student tell you about the allegation in their own words.

Following the conversation, verify the information and talk with any witnesses if possible. Depending on the nature of the allegation and if it is appropriate, hold a one-on-one discussion with the accused. Again, when assessing the veracity of a claim on either side its best to reserve judgment until after the conversation.

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