How to Have Difficult Conversations

Like all professions, education is full of terrible leaders. There are lots of good ones out there, but a cursory glance at the odd teacher blog, or a tiptoe into the average staff room, would tell you that there are a lot of teachers who don’t really rate the people who lead them.


In the past, I have written about what I termed the ‘Bowling Ball’ approach to leadership. This particular leadership style is embodied by those leaders who take no responsibility for the failings of the school, but instead pass blame down the ranks towards the teachers, bashing them to smithereens on the way. This is not good for lots of reasons. Staff feel disempowered and less invested in the school; they lose confidence and are less likely to want to work hard; they sometimes become negative and complain. People need to feel like the people who lead them have got their backs. A metaphorical bowling ball to the face doesn’t really achieve that, funnily enough.


Of course, the nature of school life is such that, unfortunately, awkward conversations are unavoidable and inevitable. Even in the best schools with the best leaders, there will be times when difficult situations arise and need to be dealt with. Every time someone gets observation feedback, every time a conversation about progress has to happen, and every time something big has to change: every one of these instances, as well as countless others, have the potential to become awkward or difficult for staff.


This doesn’t mean we have to be arseholes about it. In fact, I reckon that if you get these conversations right, they can actually be a really positive thing and can help to build- rather than destroy- professional relationships and trust.


I see myself as somewhat of a veteran of the awkward conversation, having been on the receiving end of many, and more recently, leading some. Although I am fully aware of my lack of experience and expertise in this respect, I have picked up a few nuggets of wisdom that have helped me, and that I thought I would share here.


Pre-emption: Have Their Back.


God, I cannot emphasise this enough. The culture of the school must be such that teachers feel that middle and senior leaders care about their welfare and want to help them do a great job. It’s harder to achieve this than you might think, and I believe that, on the whole, it comes down to the individual interactions people have in the organisation, and how honest and open everyone is. If the Head is quite happy to listen to people and receive feedback, etc., and if senior and middle leaders follow suit, and do it with a smile, there will be more trust floating about the place, and people will be more likely to interpret any potentially ‘difficult’ situations more generously. For this to happen, you need a school lead by people who care about building trust. If you don’t have that, it will be harder to cultivate such a culture.


Having the Conversation.


Okay, so let’s imagine that your school has a lovely warm culture where everyone is pretty happy on the whole (hard, but not impossible to achieve). Then something happens that means a middle or senior leader has to have an awkward conversation with a member of staff. Here are my thoughts on how to go about having such a conversation without destroying trust and disempowering the poor person you are having it with.


  1. Expectation vs. Reality


You must go in to these conversations with a very, very clear understanding of what went wrong. What was the expectation, and what actually happened? For example, the expectation might be that the teacher marks their books twice a half term, and the reality is that they haven’t marked them for a whole term. Once you have established this gap in your mind, you must share it with the person involved. Gently help them to see this gap in expectation. Never refer to your own feelings about the situation: as when managing kids’ behaviour, try to separate the person from the action as much as possible. It should never be about blame or fault. You don’t want to say anything that might make the person feel guilty or like they have let you or the kids down. That will do nothing but destroy their self-esteem, and you are unlikely to get the result that you want that way.


Instead, be warm; couch the conversation in the language of support and working together. Refer to your own experiences and show that you are also a human and have fallen behind work in the past. Empathise. Appreciate that it may not be that easy to mark 200 books a fortnight when you are snowed under with planning, have 3 kids and a partner, are moving house and have God knows what else to think about. Don’t judge.


But clarity is still important. Remember their strengths, and think of the current issue as something to work on to make that person even better than they already are. They’ve failed to meet an expectation: that’s it. As their line manager, it is your job to support them to meet it next time.


  1. The Responsibility Spectrum


I don’t think many situations are ever the sole responsibility of one individual. As a leader, you must think carefully about where the responsibility lies, and use the incident as an opportunity to learn something new about managing people. What could you have done differently? Could you have supported them more? Could you have clarified or managed expectations differently? Are you asking or expecting too much of them?

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 14.03.46

I tend to think about this as a spectrum. At one end, the responsibility belongs 100% to the line manager or leader; at the other, it stays 100% with the member of staff involved. Think carefully about where the incident sits on that spectrum and explain that to them in the meeting. Perhaps you could have spoken to them about marking sooner to avoid it becoming an issue; perhaps you could have clarified the expectations surrounding marking; perhaps the marking policy is too onerous and needs to be readdressed. Have the humility to see that, on some level, you could have done something to reduce the severity of the issue.


Help your colleague see this. Be honest and open about what you could have done differently, and give them the opportunity to do the same. If they are particularly tricky customer and don’t reciprocate, clarify what you think they could have done differently.


  1. Have their back


The last part of the conversation needs to be about action and next steps. Make the next steps crystal clear, and outline exactly what you will do to improve the situation, and what you expect them to do. Again, this must be underpinned by a message of support and assistance, or they will feel like they are being told what to do and may not buy into it. Ask for their input: “Is there anything else I could do differently/better? I want to get better at x so that I can be more useful to you.” “Do you agree with what we’ve discussed today? I’m open to pushback.”… etc.


Overall, remember that it isn’t about egos or power or winning. Keep the big end goal in sight: that you all want the school to be brilliant so that you can do the best by the kids. You simply won’t reach that goal if it’s all about you, or if they don’t see you as someone who wants to work with them to improve things.


See the episode as a learning opportunity and a chance to invest in your colleague. There is always more we can do to build trust with others. Paradoxically, difficult conversations (done well) are one of the best opportunities we have for improving the relationships within an organisation.



7 thoughts on “How to Have Difficult Conversations

  1. Very good. I’d add to this (which I think you’ve nodded towards) being ultra prepared – the worst thing in the world is to embark on the conversation and then discover that there’s information you don’t have.

    Be honest. It’s so cowardly to say ‘staff have said’, ‘students have said’, or ‘parents have said’ when you mean ‘I think…’ or ‘one person has suggested something vaguely…’ Similarly, don’t water down what you’re going to say.

    Don’t be afraid of the conversation. I think you’re saying this above as well but I’d add… it’s usually not as difficult as you think it’s going to be. Being on the receiving end such a conversation done well can be a relief because it can clarify expectations, be an opportunity to to explain a situation, or just give the colleague a kick they themselves think they need.

    Finally, I’d add to your advice that it’s important to listen to what comes back and be really open to this being a two way conversation. Be prepared that difficult conversations may turn out to have difficult responses (like ‘this is because you said you’d do x three months ago’) and so your perception of the problem may not be the whole story.

    I really like what you’ve written about culture. You can just tell in a school when the school is purposeful, hard work is expected and demanded, and everyone is purposeful – there’s a security about knowing underperformance or issues will be picked up but that you’re on the same side. As you say, paradoxically if such conversations don’t happen, it breeds resentment and a them and us type of culture.

  2. Pingback: What I learnt from building a tower out of newspaper… | the learning profession

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s