A day in the life of a principal can be fraught with difficult discussions that require a careful approach. You have likely found yourself in a conversation which caused you to feel anxious, stressed, or even angry. Although these emotions are natural, they can limit your ability to see problems clearly and prevent your openness to different solutions. After experiencing numerous challenging interactions, I have realized that I need to find ways to focus on these conversations and remove any emotional response so that problems can be solved effectively.
It is not about you!
I have found that one of the first steps to handling difficult conversations is to remember that it is not about you. Often these conversations are about a rule, decision, or action that was taken. These conversations are not about me as a leader or human being. By focusing on the issue, it helps remove the personal nature of these conversations.
Perception is Reality
This mantra helps me find a resolution with students, parents, and staff. It also helps me reflect on my own view of reality. When there is conflict between two people, it is normal for them to dig in and try to win the argument. Their views of the situation may be skewed and high levels of stress can impact how they view the motivations of others. These perceptions can impact how we react. By being aware of how each person, including yourself, perceives the event or issue, you can more easily find a resolution.
I have discovered that in many situations, individuals are not willing to admit that they did something wrong. It is more successful to help them see how their actions or statements could have come across differently than intended. Understanding that a person’s perception of events is their reality helps people move away from a defensive posture and toward resolution.
Lean in With Curiosity
One year, I noticed that a teacher I worked with was really negative. The communications I received were pessimistic and frustrated. I was concerned that this individual seemed to always view the glass as empty with a hole in the bottom of it. I realized that I needed to address this and was concerned about how to approach the person so that actual change could occur. When I walked into the teacher’s room I could have said, “Your attitude lately had been negative, and it is impacting others” or some other judgmental and argumentative statement. Instead, I simply said, “How are you?” When the teacher said, “Fine.” I responded, “Really? I have been worried about you. You have been kind of negative in your communication lately and that is not like you. I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help.”
This approach can help you when you are entering into a difficult conversation. It is easy to get defensive and focus on preparing your rebuttal when you are feeling attacked in a conversation. It is also easy to be overly direct and even abrasive. The problem with this is that you stop truly listening when you start to prepare your argument in your mind and you open the door to your emotions. This can lead to misunderstanding and clouded judgment. Instead of leaning back and preparing a defense, lean in with curiosity. Ask yourself questions that help you to become curious about what the other person is saying. Questions like, “Why is this person reacting this way? Are they angry? Scared? What is driving them?”
I have even used this strategy in the hall one day when a student called me a really creative expletive. I thought, “Wow! I have never been called that before. I wonder how he decided to combine those words in that way?” It may sound funny, but instead of being offended or angry, I viewed the situation with interest and focused on the action, and not on myself. That freed me to be able to handle the situation calmly, without allowing my emotions to be triggered.
These approaches can help you work though difficult conversations in a way that leads to common understanding and a feeling of acceptance. The authentic application of understating others and being curious will lead you to stronger relationships and a stronger sense of calm in any storm.
What strategies do you use to lower your level of stress during difficult conversations, and how do you help find a common resolution to issues when they arise?
Mark Hatch lives in Sidney, ME, with his wife and daughter and has been the principal at Messalonskee Middle School for 16 years. He is the 2018 Maine Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @PrincipalHatch.