Preparing for Difficult Conversations Along the Pathway to Student Success

April 22, 2022
Female student talking to female teacher

Teachers are required to have difficult conversations much more often than others outside our profession might expect. Beyond having conversations with students about grades, expectations, and even manners, teachers also often find themselves preparing for difficult conversations with parents and colleagues. Academic environments require such a great deal of cooperation and teamwork, sometimes these conversations are unavoidable steps along a pathway to student success.

Fortunately, CPI courses give teachers a chance to practice having these difficult conversations and feature four important steps to remember when beginning one of these potentially challenging interactions.

4 Steps to Remember When Preparing for Difficult Conversations

Step 1: Planning

An important first step for teachers stepping into a difficult conversation with a student, parent, or colleague is to have a plan for the time and place where this conversation will happen. Difficult conversations can sometimes induce Defensive Behavior. These behaviors can include yelling, cussing, intimidation, and some challenging questions.

To minimize the challenge of the behaviors that can occur during difficult conversations, choose a time and place where the individual being spoken to can feel safe and supported.

For instance, if a high school student needs to be told that he may not pass the class because of poor coursework, a teacher should ask that student to stay after class, rather than addressing this issue while his peers are present. Additionally, teachers might consider the day of the week when issues are shared with the individuals they work with. In this example, it may be helpful for a teacher to share the difficult news with the student on a Friday, following the difficult news with suggestions that the student may be able to work with over the weekend.

Step 2: Scripting

After a teacher has identified a time and place where a difficult conversation may take place, it may be helpful to write down a script that may be referenced during the conversation. This script does not have to be written word-for-word. Instead, teachers might make a list or a “roadmap” of what might be said. Too often—because of time or other elements pulling teachers in multiple directions—time is not taken to carefully consider how to say the important things we know we need to say, and that can lead to more of a defensive reaction than we might have otherwise received. Thinking through paraverbals is so important when preparing for difficult conversations; nonverbal communication signals safety or danger and our tone of voice matters more than the words we speak.

As a former high school Language Arts teacher, I often had to have conversations with students about their writing. Some of my most difficult conversations were with students who were already performing quite well. These students didn’t make mistakes—like punctuation or grammar—from which to grow and learn. Instead, I had to help them grow in their understanding of word choice, style, and originality of ideas. Many of these students had traditionally done very well in their Language Arts classes, so they sometimes became defensive when criticism was made. When I was a young teacher, I often navigated my way through these conversations with difficulty, and the student usually didn’t leave the conversation feeling supported. Once I began scripting my conversations, I was able to highlight specific examples and provide suggestions and alternatives that enabled them to learn and grow.

Step 3: Delivering

CPI offers several suggestions to consider when delivering news, an expectation, or a request during times when that conversation could possibly turn difficult. Two important pieces are to “respect the dignity of the person” and to “listen and respond with empathy.” Each of these suggestions remind us that individuals receiving bad news are indeed individuals! They are people—just like us—and no matter how challenged we may be by their behavior, our ability to address this conversation courteously and empathetically may be what this person needs to help him, her, or them to turn back in a positive direction.

When I was a high school assistant principal, I had a student who often found himself in my office. He would get into fights and speak to teachers disrespectfully; he would often be late to class, and once I even discovered that he had stolen a fire hydrant! His behavior was radical, to say the least. However, each time he came into my office, I reminded myself to rationally detach, keeping my emotional brain in check regardless of how much he had challenged or disappointed me. And though I often had to give him a disciplinary consequence, I also conveyed an unyielding support and belief in him. He knew I wanted him to stay out of trouble and graduate. Eventually he did!

Another strategy that worked most often with this student relates to a second approach CPI training suggests when delivering and preparing for difficult conversations. "Offer something” amidst these conversations. With this aforementioned student, I often offered him suggestions on how to speak with his teachers so he could get back on good terms in their classrooms. I would “offer” to walk him back to class and to speak to his teachers alongside him. Similarly, when I had to have difficult conversations with parents or colleagues, I always made sure I had scripted ways I could offer to provide support if this person needed it. Often, I offered my time or assistance and—many times—I was honored to simply offer my wisdom.

Whether it was my challenging student, or just a challenging situation with a parent or colleague, it was important to me that they felt supported during the delivery of the information I had to share.

Step 4: Documenting

After a difficult conversation has occurred, it is important to note observations, summarize the conversation, and even to objectively assess your performance. While the observations and summary can be critical in future conversations and follow-up, the ability to assess your own performance is paramount to your ability to learn and grow.

Look at every difficult conversation as an opportunity for you to hone your craft as an educator.

You may not have learned about preparing for difficult conversations in college during your teacher preparation programming, but teachers who have taught for at least a week know it is a huge part of the job. Embrace it! Plan, script, and deliver it. Then, document it and learn and grow from your performance.

Keep the conversation going: comment below to share the strategies you use when preparing for difficult conversations.

Kevin Mabie, Ed.D. is a Global Professional Instructor at Crisis Prevention Institute, and an educator with over 20 years of experience as a high school teacher and administrator. Dr. Mabie also facilitates trainings for the National School Reform Faculty.


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