How to facilitate difficult conversations

teenage school boy talking to counsellor in office

Whether it’s with a colleague, member of the executive, parent or student, difficult conversations are a common occurrence for teachers and educators. From parent–teacher conferences to the staffroom, teaching or orientation, a teacher’s life is full of challenging verbal communications. While the thought of having difficult conversations might be daunting, by preparing for them, you’ll be confident to handle them in a timely and professional manner.

Complex situations can usually be satisfactorily resolved by being proactive, direct and honest in your communications with everyone involved. Check out our tips on how to prepare for and handle difficult conversations.

1. Be prepared

A great way to feel in control of a difficult conversation is to prepare ahead of time so that your nerves or emotions don’t get the better of you. Take a few minutes to complete the following steps:

  • Jot down the key points, any information that supports your position on the matter, and any questions you may have.

  • Print out, or otherwise make easily accessible, any student work or emails you may want to refer to during the conversation.

  • Familiarise yourself with any school policies that may apply to the staff or students involved.

Preparing what you want to say, knowing what other issues might arise, and having available the relevant supporting documents will remove some of the stress you can feel in these situations.

2. Listen up

All conversations are made up of talking and listening – and both are equally important. Who hasn’t been in a meeting where, instead of really listening to what the other person has to say, you’re actually just planning what you want to say next? We’ve all been guilty of doing this, especially when talking to students or to someone in a more junior position.

Listen to what the other person is saying. Don’t switch off or try to talk over them. You may learn something about them that you didn’t know, or see the situation from a different angle. The other person will feel heard and is more likely then to be open to further discussion. If they see that you’re switched on and engaged with them, they're more likely to do the same for you.

3. Be clear about how you feel

Clear, direct communication is a big part of tackling difficult conversations.Start by expressing how you view the situation, what you think is the main issue that needs to be resolved, and why you’ve reached that conclusion.

Follow this up by telling the other person exactly what you hope to get out of your conversation with them. Do you want an action plan for the student, regular meetings with the parent, professional development or support from a member of the school’s executive team, or some other actionable agreement? This will help everyone involved to get on the same page about the issues and to develop a clear vision of how to proceed.

4. Look at the situation from their perspective

It can be easy to get caught up in the emotion of a situation, especially if you feel disappointed in a student or colleague, misunderstood by a parent or unsupported by a manager. Before you jump to conclusions and rush into a confrontation, it’s important to try and see the situation from the other person’s perspective and to understand the facts at the crux of the situation.

You could try asking yourself these questions:

  • What are some reasons the person might have acted this way?

  • Has this person done/said anything like this before, or is this totally out of character?

  • Is there anything else going on in their life that might be a factor?

  • Did you do anything that might account for the way this person has behaved?

It’s possible that there are a number of complex factors contributing to the situation, and taking the time to work out what they are can put you in a better position to handle them. Minimising your personal emotional investment will give the conversation a better chance of reaching a practical outcome that works for everyone involved.

5. Try to reach a compromise

There are always two sides to every story, so it’s important that you ask the other person for their perspective. If a colleague has asked you to cover a lesson for them, but your plate is already full, discuss the matter with them. It’s easy to get frustrated and just say no, or to feel obligated to say yes. But there’s often a middle ground that can work for everyone. Start by talking about how you feel about the situation, and then ask the other person to do the same. But remember tip #1: listen to what they’ve got to say, too.

6. Consider involving a support person

If you think you’ll feel uncomfortable, or you’re concerned about the direction the conversation might take, it can be helpful to have a third party present. Difficult conversations are often born from emotional situations and it can be hard to remain impartial, neutral or grounded in the facts if you’re personally involved. Having an impartial person on hand to keep everyone on course, or to stop the conversation from becoming overly emotional or devolving into a fight, will help take the pressure off you – and the other people involved – and will make a resolution more likely.

7. Agree to disagree

Sometimes, you just have to let it go. There will be some people, situations or behaviours that you just can’t talk through – and that’s okay, too. What’s important is that you tried. You’ll still walk away knowing you did the best you could. But remember: agreeing to disagree doesn’t mean you’re agreeing with the other person’s perspective. You’re just choosing your battles and protecting yourself. While walking away means you end your involvement in the situation, it might not mean it’s over entirely. Consider referring the matter to a member of your school’s executive team, or involve the parent, and get them to come up with a plan for moving forward.

8. Remember to take care of yourself

Difficult conversations can sometimes get a bit heated – people can be emotional, hurt, angry or confused. It’s okay to take time out to let everyone cool down. Agree to come back later if there’s more to discuss.

Use this time to switch off and think about something else. If you can take some time for yourself – to go for a walk, meditate or talk to someone who makes you feel good – that's great. If that’s not possible, try focusing on a job or task that will keep your mind occupied until you can pick up the difficult conversation at a later time. Taking care of yourself – and allowing the other people involved to do the same – has to be a priority.

What can I do now?

  • Read up on how to approach a conversation about mental health with your students.

  • Familiarise yourself with good self-care practices.