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How to have a difficult conversation in 5 easy steps

It feels like this year I have been asked more about having difficult conversations than I ever have been. A hangover from lockdowns, particularly tricky parents this year or just good old fashioned playground bickering - blame it on whatever you like, they seem to be on the up in schools.


Here are the best 5 things to remember when you have a difficult conversation coming up.


1. Listen first

I get it, you don’t have time to hear about all the nitty gritty details of their beef with their colleague, or how year 10 might actually be demonically possessed - you just need them to show up and do a good job. But let me frame this another way, if you get to the root problem first time around then you won’t have to have this conversation next week, or the week after. Start your conversation with a “tell me everything” question and listen without interrupting, and you will very quickly discover what is really going on behind the noise.


2. Show up with empathy

When we know a tough conversation is on the cards we feel it in our bodies. Your shoulders tighten, you get a little (or large!) adrenaline rush and ‘let's go’ gets written all over your face. When that happens, it is nearly impossible to seem empathetic - but that is precisely what is needed.

When it starts out as you versus me, someone has to win and someone has to lose.

Defensiveness triggers our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response), so you won’t make any headway into solving the problem; you'll end up with everyone feeling more pissed off, and more bitching in the staff/common rooms.

Empathy is the antidote here. You don’t need to agree with them, you just need to recognise that this is a crappy position for them to find themselves in and that sucks. When you can do this well, it will change the whole tone of the conversation.


3. Give yourself time

This ties in with the first point I made, listen first. “Sure Miff, that’s all well and good when you have time to listen to all the long winded ramblings that help us unpick what is going on in someone’s head - but who has the time for that?”

Well…you do. If you decided to. Rather than having five unhelpful (and often exacerbating) 15 minute chats over the course of a few weeks, have one meaningful hour long conversation which actually works with a ‘touch base’ chat a fortnight later.

You do not need to be a firefighter every single day of the week. You can schedule your week ahead of time and dedicate space for these conversations. You can say no when someone knocks on your door demanding a conversation immediately. You will do a far better job of supporting them and finding a resolution if you are not resenting them for pitching up unannounced, and clock watching while you wait for them to leave.



4. Disarm the problem and face it together

I have said it before but it warrants saying again so you don’t forget it. When the conversation is you versus me, someone has to win and someone has to lose. The problem is them. But that isn’t true is it? The problem isn’t them, the problem is what they are choosing to do or not do. It is an incident, their attitude, or a specific behaviour that is the problem.

Find a way of rephrasing the issue to take the personal attack out of it. Make it our problem to overcome, and they won’t have to defend themselves. It is nigh on impossible to be defensive and creative at the same time and your goal here is for them to be creative and able to problem solve.

Side note: When I say “our problem to solve” I do not mean you exit the meeting with a to-do list of things you will do for them. The actions must be for them, the support and encouragement to achieve the actions is your part.


5. Be willing to change your mind

You are a human. You might have got this wrong. You might have misunderstood.

If you can show up in your conversations open to learning, finding out you were wrong or having your perspective changed then you do two things.

You role model exactly what you want from the other person in the conversation. You move away from the old adage ‘do as I say, not as I do’ and you show up from a place of humility and respect. Heels can’t be dug in and it’s really hard for things to escalate unnecessarily when you’re in that place.

You purposefully open yourself up to understanding something new. It might be an insight into that trait you find so irritating in other people, that finally allows you to let it go. It might be a lesson that helps you improve your thinking. Teachers are a funny bunch, simultaneously in love with learning and used to being the expert, and that can cause conflict. When you take your learning brain into those conversations you are dreading you automatically show up calmer, with unbiased curiosity and greater respect.


What else? What other things have helped you navigate the difficult conversations in your life? Let me know in the comments.


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