Difficult conversations


You’re not learning anything unless you’re having the difficult conversations.

Gwyneth Paltrow

When it comes to tackling under-performance or inappropriate behaviour, there is a continuum, as shown in the diagram below.

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At one end of the spectrum are what I would call nudge conversations, where you gently raise an issue. Sometimes this is achieved through making light of a situation through humour or mentioning an issue in passing. In the majority of cases this can do the trick and the issue is resolved. By their very nature, these conversations are pretty easy to have. At the other end of the spectrum are those conversations that lead to someone leaving the school. While harder than nudge conversations, these are still relatively easy as things will have become untenable and by then the decision is clearly the right thing to do. Often the person may also not return to work, which again makes it a bit easier to manage.

The hardest conversations to have, the ones we tend to put off more than any others, are those that sit in the middle. You have tried nudging and it hasn’t worked. At their worst, the outcome of these conversations is ‘lose-lose’; you feel awful and the recipient feels destroyed. At best, the outcome is a ‘win-win’; you feel as though you could not have delivered the message in a better way; and the recipient feels clear on their next actions and as though they have been treated in a fair way.

For a ‘win-win’ scenario, you need to think through what you want to say and the message that needs to be relayed. Practise it so that your words are clear, there is nothing worse than you thinking you have said it gently and them completely missing the point and carrying on with the behaviour! Make it short; the minute you carry on speaking, you muddle the message and talk yourself back out of it.

Putting off conversations you dread usually only makes them worse. But once you have had a few (conversations, not glasses of wine!), they do get easier. If you are about to have a difficult conversation, the work of Susan Scott (2003) who is well known for her work in this area, recommends covering the following in that start to the conversation, uninterrupted:

  1. Name the issue
  2. Describe a specific Example
  3. Describe your Feelings about the issue
  4. Clarify what is at stake, why this is Important
  5. Accept your contribution to this problem
  6. Indicate your wish to Resolve the issue
  7. Invite Them to respond

The underlined letters in the list above can be an easy way to remember the seven steps as they form the acronym NEFI ART (very loosely based on the the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti!)

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Critical in the process is making sure that once the situation has been set out you do not go on to try to solve the issue until you have an acceptance from the other person of the validity of the concern.

This all sounds fine in theory, but you need to ensure that you are properly prepared not only to give this introduction, but also for what may follow. There might be a whole range of responses from silence or anger, from complete denial to emotional collapse. Thinking through in advance how you might respond to each of these can be helpful.

You also need to try not to fall into the trap of ‘propping up’ the discussion that follows. Use questions to get the other person to talk and reflect on the issue, gain understanding and give a commitment to action. Let silences happen rather than be tempted to fill them. As Susan Scott suggests, let the silence do the heavy lifting. If the discussion goes off track, bring the dialogue back onto the issue you raised at the start.

You need to keep in mind your overall approach to managing the issue. Remember that in relation to Kilmann’s 1994 model from Topic 23, in having a difficult conversation you are in forcing, collaborating or compromising mode. You are not smoothing or avoiding. This can be particularly important if you know you have a tendency to gloss over issues in the hope that they will go away or be tackled another time. You need to be disciplined. You also need to manage your own emotions, keeping to the facts at hand and the issue of concern.

If the conversation has gone well, the other person will not only have clarity about the issue, they will often feel relieved that it is out in the open and that a way forward has been agreed. You will usually go away feeling relived that you have done the hardest part, but do not forget the importance of monitoring the situation and offering support if needed.

Such discussions are serious, professional conversations. You cannot rely on or expect an existing friendship, personal loyalty or how long you have known and worked with someone to get you through such a meeting. On the other hand,  you can’t suddenly turn on ‘seniority’ mode and pull rank just to get your point across on a one-off occasion. Be empathetic, understanding and listen. Treat the recipient how you would wish to be treated if it were your line manager talking to you.

Allow the person to respond and, out of fairness, listen to what they say, but agree the issue and clear action points on what needs to happen. Finish with checking that they feel that they have been treated fairly. Where appropriate, clarify the action points in writing. It is important that the written part is supportive rather than seen as ‘I am putting this in writing’, which has different connotations. If the recipient feels that you have been fair, feels that what has been said is true, has a clear idea of how to respond and deliver and then does so, then you have had a ‘win-win’.

After a difficult conversation it can be tempting to pretend it didn’t happen, particularly if the person works closely with you. It can sometimes just be a bit awkward. The best thing is to be proactive and take steps to keep dialogue open. Thank them for the conversation and focus on the agreed outcomes positively. Don’t forget to make sure you hold them to account for what they have agreed to. Finally, you may wish to get involved in an activity with the person concerned that is nothing to do with what you have been discussing. Something you both enjoy. In a way, this approach isn’t dissimilar from the repair and rebuild we might seek to undertake with a pupil!

This blogpost is based on an extract from Leadership Matters. More details can be found here.

I would also recommend an excellent book by Sonia Gill specifically written for school leaders: Having Successful Difficult Conversations.

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