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Alex Masters

Dreading that difficult conversation? Try these simple techniques

Everyone dreads those difficult conversations with colleagues. Alex Masters explores some simple techniques to help turn the awkward and stressful into the positive.

They say there are only two things that are certain in life: death and taxes. I would like to add one more to the list: difficult conversations. 

Unless you live on a mountain top and meditate for eight hours a day (and reduce your daily tête-à-têtes to rabbits and trees) it’s pretty inevitable that you have to talk to people on a daily basis… especially in one of the most people-facing of arenas: education. 

While many of these exchanges will (hopefully) be calm, constructive and positive, chances are there will be times when the dialogue takes a more uncomfortable turn. From performance management and clashes over lesson planning to even more sensitive issues, these conversations can become tricky, prickly and even downright aggressive. 

We spoke to a range of experts who have offered a range of insightful advice. You may already use these in your day-to-day experiences, while others might be new to you.

Tip of the iceberg

Be aware that if a colleague is defensive, aggressive or highly emotional, there could be a number of reasons for this: they may be feeling demoralised, antagonistic and burned out, or they might be having issues of power or self-esteem.

If someone does go into ‘attack-mode’, don’t ever take it personally. And don’t defend… they’ll only attack harder!

Opportunity in crisis

Remember that all moments of conflict are moments of opportunity. And you have to talk – there’s no alternative. 

When you begin your conversation, avoid any negative language: start with the positives, then move to your area(s) of concern. This creates a softer, calmer base to work form.

Also, be consistent and transparent in all your communications and remind your colleague that you want to work in partnership: this will foster an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. 

The question trick

Use the question trick: rather than trying to come up with ‘that brilliant question’ (which doesn’t exist) simply listen then echo what they’ve just said by exploring one word or phrase with a question. This shows that you’ve been listening carefully and are being empathetic.

Silence is golden

We’ve all had to endure that awkward silence. Although uncomfortable, resist the temptation to fill the gap: the space gives both of you thinking time and (hopefully) the opportunity to reach new insights and solutions. 

The bigger picture

It’s also a good idea to remind colleagues that the pupils are at the centre of everything. This can put things in perspective and provide a positive framework for your conversation. 

Remember that all moments of conflict are moments of opportunity

Sometimes, you may also need to remind them that, while they are in school, they are expected to work and conduct themselves in a professional manner.

And remember, dealing with conflict is never easy but your colleagues will respect you less if you don’t try.

With thanks to: Nickii Messer, Edward Gildea and Gemma Dexter.

 

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