How to Have Difficult Conversations in Schools
Leading difficult conversations is not about power or forcing people to do as they are told. It is about accountability, gaining buy-in and building trust. When holding conversations around practice, or conflict there will be specific elements of people management but that is not leadership.
As a leader you encourage your team, you don’t demean or alienate.
You always have your line manager for support and guidance if you are facing resistance. I would always encourage you to ask for advice and try this before getting another leader to specifically manage the situation. It is important that you have confidence that your manager will support your decisions. This post will give you the tools you need to manage difficult conversations with your team.
“Master the courage to interrogate reality”Susan Scott (Fierce Conversations)
Improve Difficult Conversations: Developing your emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence in terms of holding courageous or difficult conversations is the capacity to be aware of, control and express your emotions. It is intrinsically linked to communication and how you foster a sense of connection or rapport with those you lead.
How do you handle relationships within your team using empathy and fairness?
The first stage of building effective relationships with your team is recognising that you need to understand yourself:
- What energises you?
- What is your passion?
- What do you avoid doing (maybe unconsciously?)
Once you are confident in what powers your professional drive, your WHY?, then you can start thinking about how you can take others along with you. A personal vision.
It may be useful to reflect on interactions you have had with your team that have previously evoked emotional responses from you. With hindsight were these professionally appropriate as a leader? For challenging conversations, it is important that you acknowledge the emotions of all parties. It is up to you to decide how open or vulnerable you want to be as a leader.
Difficult Conversations at Work: Setting Expectations.
Setting expectations and what you stand for makes any conversation easier. The other person will know, or at least have an awareness of what you believe in, what your values are. Communicating this personal WHY or vison is essential for any leader. If you think you have made yourself clear say what you expect of your team another 10 times. Never underestimate the importance of communicating your vision and sharing what it is you believe in. People buy into you because you will inspire them whether you want to admit it or not. This video and associated leadership book by Simon Sinek* gives you a great starting point to think about your why.
Leadership is not about you. It is about inspiring your team to follow your vision or ideas, supporting them to do so and challenging practice or attitudes that don’t align with the school’s policies or values.
Difficult Conversations that Challenge or Set Expectations.
Susan Scott calls these “Fierce Conversations*”, with the aim to nurture successful relationships. They are a collaborative process that in a school environment are needed to ensure practise and provision are as good as they can be. They are required to create effective teams, to manage conflict. They are an essential part of the Safeguarding process. Challenging poor practise or developing a teacher, even a good one will require a leader to have conversations that may not be welcomed. This is especially true if you are a new leader talking to an experienced teacher.
Leaving a situation unchallenged can quickly escalate into a range of related problems. Not tackling a negative team member can lead to a toxic environment. You can lose great staff by not tackling others.
You will often find yourself in situations where you are now responsible for managing someone who wanted, or thinks they should now be doing what you have been tasked to do.
Sometimes your promotion or change in role will be unplanned or unexpected. You will encounter jealousy, distrust or even outright hostility.
Your words and actions need to demonstrate an understanding and respect for this uncomfortable situation.
If you feel like you are losing control or protecting staff from upset by not having these conversations it will impact your own wellbeing. When deciding whether to have a conversation or leave it ask yourself – What will be the consequences of not having the conversation?
Leading a Team – Essentials for New Leaders.
It is important to connect individually with each member of your team.
- This may be individual conversations or within a group setting
- Explain why you wanted this role – share your why
- Choose key areas of your vision to share, reinforce and overcommunicate.
- Identify those who need you to “prove yourself” to
- Make yourself open to questions.
- Try to manage genuine concerns sensitively
- Validate concerns, have a plan for addressing concerns.
- Pushback is part of the process do not take offence.
Use and respect the background of the team members.
- Think about what you know about them and what drives them
- Don’t come in like a wrecking ball
- Yes you have the authority to make changes – but use this wisely
- Find out why a system or process exists before changing it. i.e is there a break or personal care rota does it fit with your vision?
- Find out if a member of your team implemented it or is invested in it – ask why but don’t be judgemental.
- Demonstrate you value the work people have done, continue to do.
Setting Boundaries With Colleagues
Teacher training rarely prepares you for managing others or how to set boundaries. It wasn’t even mentioned in my PGCE or during induction. The hardest thing to get right early in your career is setting boundaries especially if you are moving from part of a teaching team, to leading that team. If you are a people pleaser, perfectionist or lacking in confidence it can be hard to set professional boundaries. I had to ask my teaching assistants to not text me if they were ill or not in the next day as it would cause me to worry about something I couldn’t control all night.
Signs you need to set a boundary
A good sign you need to set a professional boundary is that you get anxious if your phone goes off in the evening. You constantly check your email. You feel the need to be “on-call” all the time for your team. You are starting to feel burnout/thinking of changing jobs. You lose sleep. You start building up resentment towards your team members. You become an emotional support for someone at the expense of your own wellbeing.
To lead effectively you do not need people to like you – although you don’t want people to dislike you – but you do need them to trust you. It might be you need a courageous conversation with someone you have a close working or personal relationship with.
Tips for building a safe space to work, develop and ensure effective learning.
- Do not belittle other’s ideas
- Avoid using shame and fear tactics to force through change
- Be positive, your energy will be reflected by the team
- Follow through with anything you will say you will do to show commitment to the team
- But only if you agree with it and it aligns with your vision and values – and the Schools values and policies.
- Advocate for your team but avoid creating a them and us approach to gain their support – at any level
- I.e if you do not agree with a whole school priority or new system it is important not to undermine it with your team.
- Discuss concerns with your line manager don’t join in with your team – moan upwards! (Do not join the negativity bandwagon)
Stop Micromanaging Your Team
Micromanaging experienced staff can be very demotivating and cause resentment. It demonstrates you do not trust their judgement or skills. If you are a perfectionist or very specific in your requirements this becomes even harder. You might want a display put up a certain way, an activity completed very specifically. It is rare another human with their own skills and capabilities will complete a task the same way as you. To avoid the temptation to do micromanage staff try the following tips:
- Outline very clearly what you are asking your team to do.
- You need to recognise that people may do things differently from you. Is the outcome good but just not how you would do it?
- Don’t nitpick look at the bigger picture.
Preparing for Courageous or Difficult Conversations
Because I do not enjoy these types of conversations I need to prepare in advance. To make the conversation the most effective it can be I like to plan and prepare myself. In some ways this gets easy as you become more senior as you often have more autonomy and control over your time and space (Another challenge for middle leaders!). I will talk about scripts later on, What I really mean is getting some factors right before you even start the conversation.
This conversation is likely to be the most important one you have that day (or one of many). It can have a positive or negative ripple effect for both yourself and the other party.
- Ensure you have a private space to conduct the difficult conversation where you won’t be interrupted. If you don’t have an office book a meeting room.
- Be there on time. This shows that it is important to you and demonstrates respect for the other party.
- Clear plenty of time to finish the conversation – you don’t know where it will lead. It is okay to finish conversations but not to rush them.
- Phone and computer off. You need to prove you value this conversation.
- Chairs – okay this is quite niche but I had to end someone’s contract and the office I borrowed only had really low chairs. It wasn’t comfortable and I was either perched on the edge or slouching. I heard later that the person said “He didn’t care just lounged on the chair” – Never again!!
- Get your facts straight. Don’t be vague especially if there is likely to be a “when?” question asked back at you. This is easier if you have not been delegated the conversation – if someone asks you to “have a chat with…” get information and clarity
- Work out what you want from the difficult conversation. What do you want to find out or what change do you need to see? (What have you already achieved).
- Think about what assumptions you might have made.
- Have water and tissues available.
- How concerned are you about the response the other person will have? How do you think they’ll react to your message? What’s the best-case scenario? What’s the worst that could happen?
Three Types of Difficult Conversations for School Leaders
We can split “difficult” conversations into three main types. You should be able to think about conversations you have had or want to have and allocate them to one of these types. Each need different approaches and preparation. How you do this will depend on the individual you are having them with, their temperament and your relationship with them. I will talk about generalities and we can discuss the minutiae.
Some of these will be in no way difficult and can or should lead to positive developmental outcomes.
Courageous conversations are those that you will find the most challenging. Tackling poor practice or clear breaches in policy or expectations. Maybe you have had conversations before that have gone badly.
For this type of conversation don’t be afraid of silence. It can be tempting to fill the silence with platitudes to “soften the blow” but really this muddies the message. The more emotional people become the less they will hear what you are trying to say. You may get flustered and say something that is not constructive. Wait for a response if you have asked a question.
Have clear concrete examples of what you are talking about. Avoid being vague and saying things like “A few people have raised concerns about your lessons”. This won’t go down well and will lead to other questions you may not have the answers to undermining your point. Try “During last Thursday’s learning walk the deputy head noticed that you didn’t have any visual resources prepared for the lesson. Can you explain why that was?”.
Tackle courageous conversations as early as possible so you are not building your own anxieties.
Acknowledge if you haven’t supported that teacher or that you are aware of the challenges they faced. “I know you haven’t had full staffing this week but ensuring the pupil’s medication is administered on time is essential.”
Try to focus on one thing. If it is multiple issues think about the root cause. Can you keep focus on one element that will improve other? i.e “I noticed your lesson didn’t seem to be going to plan and you appeared to be getting a bit frustrated, you were shouting. And your planning isn’t up to date, you left early yesterday and your class was late to assembly.” Think about the reaction this will cause.
Listen but don’t feel the need to respond to every point.
Keep calm, be assertive but respectful. IF the atmosphere is becoming heated pause the conversation and let emotions settle before continuing.
Provide CLEAR feedback
It is essential to take ownership of addressing performance issues within your team, this can be uncomfortable especially if you have a close personal or working relationship with them. Many new leaders will be worried about their team feeling they have changed or are throwing their weight around. Challenging Performance issues can be highly emotive and evoke strong reactions especially if unexpected or a friendship is felt to be questioned. However, allowing your team to act in ways that need to be challenged can create a high-stress or toxic environment for you. This ultimately impacts on everyone’s wellbeing. It is important to remember we are all employed to work to ensure our education provision is the best it can be for the pupils. This is what we agreed to do when we became teachers or teaching assistants. You cannot go wrong if you make feedback about the pupils not you.
C – Communicate Face to Face. Emailing, or even worse texting catches people off guard and causes anxiety which can make people defensive and less willing to take on board what you want them to hear.
L – Limit preamble, get straight to the point you want to address. Be clear and concise. You may want to “script” this first
E – Evaluate how the message is being received. This will determine whether you carry on or offer to take a break again scripting can help. “I can see that this is causing strong emotions and you might need time to process what I have said, lets leave this for now and pick up again later.” Take control but provide options. People can only absorb so much when
A – Approach with Empathy – “I know you are going through some things at home, it seems to be affecting how tolerant you are with the pupils. I want to support you and make sure it doesn’t affect how people see you.”
R – Realign expectations and values so you can make a clear plan to improve the situation. Don’t be tempted to work harder yourself or give other team members more work i.e more break duties or working with the most challenging pupils. Be clear with what you can do to support, remind them of expectations.
These can often be the easiest to have as you are not yet forming a judgement. They can also be the easiest for the person you are having them with to misinterpret. They may interpret poorly worded curious questions as criticism. On the flipside they can be fun and you will often learn things. I tend to use this for lesson observation or learning walk follow ups. It’s not my class, I am not an expert in those pupils so I need to ask questions not presume.
Tell me more about why….
Tell me more about how….
I’m really interested in how you have developed this…
I was curious about how the pupils respond to…
Coaching is a term overused in a lot of places. These rely heavily on trust and a relationship. Really an individual should have some choice over who their coach is and determining the course of the conversation. However, in schools, we know this isn’t always possible. Your aim here is long-term systematic change and improvement rather than addressing a specific issue. This is focussed on the development of the individual. I believe that in schools to coach teachers you need to find opportunities to model and use your experiences to build their skills. I am a big believer in using research and encouraging collaboration.
Let the teacher lead these conversations and identify clear ways to support them to achieve their own goals. These often difficult conversations will have a positive intent. They need to occur in a safe environment where the other person feels they are valued and open to discuss issues they want to address. If resources allow these may be better led by someone external to the school or at least the direct line management structure. A leader here should avoid imposing their own solutions to any problems that are brought around.
Courageous Conversation Examples
As a school leader, you may find yourself engaging in various courageous conversations, such as:
- Addressing bullying or discrimination incidents: Discussing specific instances of bullying or discrimination, and working with all involved parties to find solutions and create a more inclusive environment.
- Talking about mental health: Openly discussing mental health issues, encouraging students and staff to seek help, and creating a supportive environment for those dealing with mental health challenges.
- Addressing inequality or bias: Identifying and discussing instances of inequality or bias, and working to implement policies and practices that promote equity and fairness for all.
- Handling sensitive personal issues: Respectfully and confidentially addressing personal issues that may be affecting a student or staff member’s performance or well-being, and providing support and resources as needed.
- Facilitating difficult conversations: Creating a safe space for open dialogue and conflict resolution, whether it’s between students, staff members, or parents, and helping to arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about leading effective courageous, curious, coaching and difficult conversations.
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