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Principals Academy Blog: Difficult Conversations Print E-mail

by Linda Borquist, COSA Principals Academy Coordinator

Now that we are back form the winter holidays, principals may be thinking of some difficult conversations they should have.  It is important to think these conversations through.  Below are some conversation guidelines and frameworks for having these conversations.  Please add your own thoughts, ideas, and resources for difficult conversations.  Good luck...


Setting Up and Handling Difficult Conversations

Background:  Some conversations are difficult because they don’t turn out when we try to have them.  Others seem so difficult that we avoid having the conversations.  We think about having them, but we don’t.  The following conversations tend to be difficult for some people:

  • Asking for what you want
  • Declining someone’s request
  • Disagreeing with someone else’s view
  • Letting people know that you have a problem and need support
  • Complaining about something that doesn’t work
  • Sharing a complaint or bad news

We have lots of reasons why we don’t have the conversations.  First, we don’t want to be uncomfortable and we see the potential for someone being upset and things getting worse.  We have other justifications like, “it’s not that big of a deal.”  These explanations allow us to get away with not having the conversation. 

Second, we are not aware of the downstream costs that we incur by not voicing our concerns.  If we were in touch with the price we ultimately pay, we’d have the conversations.  Sometimes the price is that things get worse.  An even bigger price we pay is losing out on something special that might happen if we immediately handled these issues.  Ever say to yourself, “Gee, why did I wait so long?”  Sometimes, it’s because doing whatever it was that we had been putting off didn’t turn our to be a big deal.  Sometimes it’s because we get to access to something much more exciting having done whatever it was we were avoiding.  That’s the way it is with difficult conversations.  It’s always different on the other side.  

It is possible to design the conversation so that it works for everyone.  
We avoid difficult conversations because we simply don’t know how to make them work.  Sit down and think through the conversation and how you want it to go.  

Don’t have the conversation unless:
>You are committed to the person
>You are willing to stay with the conversation until it turns out for the other person
>You are clear that you are creating or building something by raising the issue

Think about, but don’t be stopped by:
>Timing, when would this conversation work best and in what setting?
>Is this a group issue or an individual issue?
>Am I in the right frame of mind to have this conversation?
>Am I willing to do whatever it takes, even if they aren’t?

Get in touch with:  How would I like to be approached if someone has something to say to me that I am likely to take very personally and get defensive about?

When you start or set up the conversation:

  1. Let them know why you want to have the conversation. What is important to you that is being interrupted or put in jeopardy?  Be clear.
  2. Tell them that something is not working for you and ask to share it with them.
  3. Take care of the other person.  Let them know that you value them and the relationship.  If you are concerned about causing damage to the relationship by raising this issue, tell them.  Share your thinking with them.
  4. If you have other concerns, share those also. but be reasonable in the amount shared at any one time.  Don’t dump to the point of them feeling buried with no way out.  Voicing these concerns will both free you up and will let the other person know your care and want this to work.  It will also lessen the chances of your fears actually materializing.
  5. Acknowledge any concerns that you think they may have.
  6. Let them know that this is a problem for you and may not be for them.  Also, share that this is your perception of the problem.  It may not be the whole truth, as they see it.
  7. Give them permission not to respond immediately or even during this conversation.  You may need to schedule a follow-up conversation.

When you talk about the issue:

  1. Tell them what the problem is.  Use facts.  Be specific.
  2. If you have a request, make it.  If you don’t know what to do, let them know.
  3. Remind them that you want to stay with this until it works for both of you.
  4. Ask them to share their view of it.
  5. Listen intently and let them know that you have fully heard what they said.
  6. Ask them what they see to do about it.
  7. Before you end the conversation, decide what the next steps are.  When will you talk about it again?  How will you continue to work on this?  How will you know when it is no longer an issue for either of you?
  8. Let them know you appreciate being able to talk to them.

Now, script out the key components of your conversation.

Acknowledgement:  The above was adapted from Conversation Skills:  Setting up and handling difficult conversations.

Comments (1)Add Comment
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Superintendent
written by Michael Carter, February 24, 2011
Excellent summary and very useful information. These conversations are a vital part of any admistrators job and without these conversations organizations can't improve.

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This page was last updated on Wednesday, January 14, 2009 .