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What’s the Right Way to Handle Difficult Staff Conversations?

February 9, 2018, 16:32 GMT+1
Read in about 8 minutes
  • Conversations with staff about sensitive issues carry the risk of causing further problems – which is why the right framework and language is essential, writes Sonia Gill...
What’s the Right Way to Handle Difficult Staff Conversations?

If you’re like the school leaders I’ve met, you’ll find difficult conversations tend to come at you, from all angles, many times a day. A ‘difficult conversation’ is a dialogue about a situation where something needs to improve (results, performance, working relationships etc) and where voicing the issues is likely to upset someone to some degree. If you’re sure someone won’t be upset then it’s unlikely to be a difficult conversation.

I’ve witnessed a lot of difficult conversations – thankfully not all my own – and there are three common problems I see repeatedly, no matter what the topic. Maybe you’ve also experienced some, or all, of the following…

Emotional reactions

Problem 1 is that the person doesn’t hear your message. You raise an issue with someone, you’re as clear as you can be and you give your message in several different ways, but when they walk away, you feel like they didn’t hear what you were telling them. In fact, you might feel they’ve heard something else. It’s frustrating, and can you make you feel like it wasn’t worth having the conversation in the first place. Problem 2 is when it gets emotional. When we’re giving a message that’s hard for someone to hear, emotions can increase. Maybe they cry, withdraw or get angry.

This can be hard on us as well as them, because we didn’t give them the message to cause distress; we gave it to help them improve. But we’re human, and we can react emotionally.

Emotions come into play before, during and after the conversation. Have you ever worried about a conversation you knew you needed to have? Perhaps you’ve played it over in your mind, or it’s become the low point in your week ahead. After the conversation, have you ever re-played it, re-lived or even re-invented it, imagining what you could have said and then how they would have responded, even though the conversation is over? If so, you’re not alone.

The problem with these emotions is that they can be exhausting and use up a lot of your energy, which means there’s less energy for the rest of school and your home life. A memorable example of the impact that emotions can have was with a school leader that I trained. As we started the day, she told me how she had a difficult issue with a woman in her school, and that she took this woman on holiday with her. She was by the pool, at dinner, on the beach, always with her.

I remember thinking ‘Why would you take this person on holiday with you?’, then I then realised that she wasn’t physically with her – the woman had been in her head throughout the holiday. This school leader was reliving, replaying and reinventing the conversation she’d had with her colleague, and it was ruining her holiday.

Conversational success

Finally, problem 3 is when no change happens. You know this situation – you have a difficult conversation with someone and they agree with what you say, including what they need to do next. But you’re pretty sure none of the changes will actually happen, which means that despite putting yourself through a difficult conversation, sadly, you might as well have not bothered!

Another senior leader I worked with had exactly this problem. For a year he’d been repeatedly asking a capable team member to complete some necessary paperwork. However, for that entire year, the paperwork hadn’t materialised. We worked on the three core components of successful difficult conversations, and after a subsequent conversation, this previously uncooperative member of staff produced all the paperwork within eight hours.

So what are they? Three core components that, when all in place, will dramatically increase the success of your difficult conversations, no matter what the topic. Taken together, they tackle the three common problems discussed above head on..

Component 1: Structure – ensures your message is heard
The problem of someone not hearing your message is down to your message being unclear. You might feel like that you’ve been crystal clear, but I’ve seen hundreds of school leaders who believe they have a clear message when in fact they do not. It’s the single biggest mistake I see in around 70% of difficult conversations.

Component 2: Emotional management – prevents exhaustion
Emotions are exhausting and can derail a successful difficult conversation, as well as make the conversation occupy too much of our internal thoughts before and afterwards. Emotions are, however, an important and inevitable part of having these conversations, so learning how to manage our own and the other person’s emotions is crucial.

Component 3: Trust – increases the likelihood of positive action
When the other person doesn’t take action following the conversation, whether they said all the right things or not, is due to a lack of trust. I’m not talking here about trust that you might have built up from knowing someone for a decade, or perhaps from having grown up with them. I’m referring to the trust in the interaction itself. Often, we’ll inadvertently sabotage trust through our non-verbal communication, and this reduces the effectiveness of our conversation.

The core components

When a team, such as the SLT, MLT or year group leaders, understand these three components of successful difficult conversations, they can reflect and analyse their interactions more effectively, because they have a framework and language for difficult conversations.

Without this knowledge, the analysis of a conversation will tend to be unhelpful, taking the form of ‘I said…’, ‘He/ she said…’ or ‘Perhaps if you’d said…’ and won’t enable you to have more effective conversations. With this knowledge, teams are better able to support one another with their difficult conversations.

To draw a parallel, this is akin to what you can do when you’ve observed a lesson where you know what was (or wasn’t) working, and can explain this clearly. This is the level teams get to once they understand the mechanisms at work in a difficult conversation.

The difficult conversation topics I’ve encountered the most:

1. Books not marked frequently or well enough
2. Poor teaching and/or poor planning
3. Not working as a team
4. Bullying behaviour
5. TAs not working with a child or class well enough
6. Year/subject leaders not driving performance across their year/subject
7. Missed deadlines or failure to carry out agreed actions
8. A brusque receptionist
9. Lateness
10. Laziness

Sonia Gill is director of the school leadership training provider Heads Up. The article is an edited extract from her book Successful Difficult Conversations In School, which is available now, published by John Catt.

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