Someone is heading for me…I can tell because of the squinted eyes that are locked on me. I see a gait that is determined and quickened. Is there smoke coming out of their ears? Uh oh, what do I do…
Have you been there? I certainly have…in my personal life and in my professional life. This was the stuff of my nightmares when I first became a principal. My hands would get clammy, my stomach would knot up and I would pray for someone to pull the fire alarm.
That was then, and this is now. Thank goodness. After years of experience with challenging confrontations, I cannot say that I necessarily look forward to them, but I do approach them with the confidence that I am not going to let my emotions get the best of me during the conversation. I know that I will listen to understand the concern, and express that understanding. We may not end up agreeing at the end, but we can be agreeable.
I approach difficult conversations with 3 easy steps.
- Listen. Don’t speak, other than to ask the initial question, “I am glad you came to see me, I can see you are upset. What’s going on?” Just listen and have open body language.
- Understand the good intentions the person has. Communicate their good intentions back to them in short and simple sentences. Negative emotions might mask the good intentions that are there…dig for them if necessary.
- Ask, “How would you like me to help you with __________ .”
At that point in the conversation, you will have an understanding of the concern, what the person wants from you, and you will have calmed the situation by empathizing with him or her.
From there, you can identify the things you both want that are in common. With parents in a school situation that is relatively easy because we both want the best for their child, and we can agree to that. If what the person wants is not reasonable, explain that without insulting his/her perspective. It is never our job to judge feelings or perceptions, just to provide information.
Above all, I always tell myself that it is not about me, it is about the person in front of me and what they are going through at the time. As much as I like to think that the world revolves around me, I am not the most important person. This helps me set my feeling aside because, quite frankly, if I do not set them aside, my feelings can get in the way of good communication. Nervousness can lead to timidness, defensiveness can lead to disagreeing to be disagreeable, and fear can lead to talking in circles. Staying focused on serving the person in front of me helps me stay calm.
…as the person approaches, I give a supportive look and invite him into my office, where we sit side by side at my table. I thank him for coming in, and ask what’s going on. I reassure him that I know we can handle it together…we leave smiling and laughing, feeling understood, validated and with a plan to move forward.