10 tips for school leaders on handling difficult conversations

Posted by Kate Herbert-Smith - Last updated on January 3, 2023

There are some conversations you’d probably rather not have, particularly if it means delivering unpleasant news, discussing a delicate subject, or talking about something that needs to change or has gone wrong. But, as a school leader, these conversations can crop up fairly regularly so feeling confident about knowing how to handle them is essential.

It’s perfectly natural to feel anxious or nervous at the thought of a difficult discussion, whether it’s with a teacher, parent or child. However, there are a few simple techniques that can help to make them productive and as painless as possible.


Handling difficult conversations in schools

1. Plan the conversation

This is not a conversation you want to have in the spur of the moment. Think about what you’re going to say, and when you are going to say it. Timing is important. Think about the questions they might ask and have answers prepared. The more prepared you are, the easier it will be to stay even tempered and calm.


2. Be on the same level

As much as possible, stay at the same eye level as the person you are speaking to. Either both sit, or both stand. Don’t have one of you physically above or below the other.

3. Stay calm

Speak directly to the other person as calmly and respectfully as possible. Try not to raise your voice. Shouting or yelling is likely to make the person leave, shut down or retaliate. If you get too emotional the chances of your message being heard will also diminish because the person will focus on your emotions instead.


4. Keep hand gestures neutral

Finger-pointing, waving your fists or gesturing wildly are a definite no, no as they tend to make people feel they are being lectured, told off, attacked or talked down to.

5. Watch your language

The actual words you use during the conversation matter. Think about this ahead of your conversation. Words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ might help you to express your frustration but they overgeneralise and are often inaccurate. Try to avoid using them.

6. Really listen

When the other person is speaking, actively listen to what they have to say. Try not to interrupt them. If you’re thinking about how you will respond while they are talking, then you aren’t really listening.

7. Be empathetic

If you see the other person is really struggling with what you’ve said, pause for a minute while they collect themselves. If they're really taking the news poorly, remind them that you’re having this conversation to make things better, and you want to see them succeed.


8. Adopt the right attitude

Approaching the conversation with openness and determination to solve the problem rather than be ‘right’ will minimise conflict and competition, and will more likely lead to a resolution that you’re both happy with.


9. Stick to the topic and be specific

It’s easy to go off on tangents, bringing up other issues or complaints related to the topic of your conversation. But try not to get sidetracked from the problem you are trying to solve. Save them for another time. Also, be honest and thorough, and clearly outline why you're having the conversation. Offer as many concrete examples as possible so the person understands you're not just pulling things out of thin air.

10. Offer a solution

There’s nothing more frustrating than having a difficult conversation and not being given a possible viable solution or way to improve it. If you’re telling a colleague that their performance isn’t good for example, explain why and let them know what they need to work on to make it better.

For more advice and resources on how to be a better leader, download our free practical guide here >


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