Crucial Conversations QA

How to Talk to a Student’s Parent in Crucial Moments

Dear David,

I am a school principal and recently we had an incident where a student injured another student. I will be meeting with the father of the injured child, who is very angry. He feels the school has failed to protect his daughter in the past and this exacerbates the situation. While the school does bear some responsibility, the student has also been difficult to manage. In hindsight, the school possibly could have handled this student better. She seems to be at the center of a number of school issues and, when addressed, the family makes her the victim. What can I do?

Perplexed Principal

Dear Perplexed,

I believe that you and other educators have one of the toughest and most important jobs in our society. You live at the frontline of many of our toughest social problems, and we count on you to deal with many of them—as well as to educate our precious children.

Today, you face a tough and sad situation. A student has been injured, her parents are angry, and it’s complicated by the student’s own behaviors. I will outline some actions you can take to begin to mend the situation, but the first step is for you and your school to own your role in this problem.

As principal, you need to come to terms with what has happened in the past, attempt to repair the relationship with the student and her parents, and create a future in which this student and all students are safe and successful. It’s a tall order.

Acknowledge the Past. We teach a skill that goes by the acronym CPR—for Content, Pattern, and Relationship. It highlights the different aspects of a complicated problem. Let’s try it with yours:

  • Content: An individual incident. Here, it’s the recent incident in which the student was injured.
  • Pattern: A recurring issue. In your case, it’s the school’s history of failing to protect this student. A second pattern to check for is across other students. This may not be the only student who has been injured.
  • Relationship: The impact the incident or pattern has had on the overall relationship. For you, it’s how the pattern has undermined the parent’s trust in your motives, your competency, your respect for him and his daughter, etc. A second relationship issue to check for is amongst other students and parents. You may have lost the trust of a whole group or category of parents.

You will need to take responsibility for each aspect of this problem. Given the incident and the pattern of incidents, it makes perfect sense for the father (or group of parents) to have lost faith in you and your school. He is not being unreasonable.

Repair the Relationship. It will be hard to plan for the future, unless you can build some trust. An apology is a good place to start, though it may not be enough. Here are the elements I look for in an apology:

  • Admit to your past failures. Keeping children safe is fundamental to your job, and you failed—more than once. Don’t get caught up in apportioning blame. Even if you think the school is only 20% responsible, say that you are sorry for your part.
  • Apologize unequivocally. Focus on your actions, not the father’s reactions. Don’t say “I’m sorry you feel this way.” Say “I’m sorry I failed to protect your daughter.” Avoid any qualifications or buts. Don’t say “I’m sorry, but your daughter is . . . ” Say “I’m sorry. I take full responsibility. I let you down.”
  • Pledge to fix the situation. Promise to create the kind of safe, nurturing, and supportive learning environment all of us want for our children.
  • Back up your words with actions. These actions are intended to mend the wound in the relationship. If you think of these actions as a bandage, they will have to be at least as large as the wound in order to work. This means going above and beyond what would normally be expected in a relationship. We think of it as making a sacrifice. Below are a few examples:
    • Ego Sacrifice: Admit your failings in public. Admit that you have violated your own sense of values and accept the consequences.
    • Time Sacrifice: Demolish your calendar with all of its plans and to-dos and rebuild it around solving this problem.
    • Priority Sacrifice: Push aside several of your cherished priorities and move this one to the top.
    • Dollar Sacrifice: Reallocate budgets away from your current priorities and toward this one.
  • Don’t assume your apology will be enough. Don’t use the apology to silence the other person, as in “I’ve already apologized for that. You need to move on!” The hurt party has no obligation to accept your apology.

Establish Mutual Purpose. Involve the father (or group of parents) by having him identify his aspirations and fears for his daughter. Use this process to demonstrate that you agree with these aspirations and fears. Use them as common ground on which to build a plan for the future.

Expand this Purpose. As a principal you have multiple stakeholders and many responsibilities. You can’t allow a single student and parent to overwhelm all your other priorities. Instead, use this single relationship to see what every student and parent wants from you and your school. Establish goals that set standards in these areas of mutual purpose, for example: safety, academic achievement, connection, and support.

Identify Crucial Moments. Identify the times, places, people, and circumstances when these goals are at risk. Involve a team of administrators, teachers, parents, and students in this process. Make sure this specific student and parent are involved either directly or through frequent outreach. Examples of these crucial moments might include:

  • Normal teasing begins to turn mean.
  • A student shows a pattern of disrespect.
  • A teacher is struggling to control a class.

Create and Implement Solutions. Determine best practices for handling each crucial moment. Use training, coaching, and mentoring to make sure these solutions are put into practice.

I hope these ideas help. I would love to hear from you educators and parents who have faced similar problems. What have you seen that works?

Best of luck,

Crucial Conversations QA

My Coworker Does This Annoying Little Thing . . .

Dear Joseph,

Our offices look soundproof. But they are not. Even with the doors closed you can hear almost everything above a whisper from the adjacent office. My coworker in the office next door hums and sings very loudly. I put headphones on to try to cover it with my own music, but I can still hear her singing over it. No one else seems to hear it or be bothered by it, but it’s becoming really distracting for me at work. I’m not sure how to approach her without sounding rude and embarrassing her. I could leave my office to work in common areas instead, but I feel I should be able to use my office, too. How can I let her know that her humming/singing is disrupting my work without hurting her feelings or our work relationship?

Distracted by Singing

Dear Distracted,

I’ve got two options for you to consider.

First, see if you can change your reaction to the singing without lowering the volume.

When my son was little, he had a knuckle cracking habit. When I would drive him somewhere, he would sit in the back seat crunching his cartilage over and over and over . . . and over. It drove me nuts. It was loud. It was repetitive. And it seemed out of control. He would do it in other circumstances as well where I was certain it was annoying others. I decided this needed to stop. So, I made a campaign out of it. And in the end, I lost. Don’t get me wrong, the knuckle cracking stopped. But I lost in two other ways. First, I lost because I weakened my relationship with my son in order to get what I wanted. And second, I lost because I reinforced a false belief in my mind that my emotions were his responsibility. Let me elaborate.

First, read the four italicized sentences in the previous paragraph again. Notice the assumption woven throughout each of them. First, I allege that he was driving me nuts. Second, I exaggerate the volume. Third, I place a value judgment on him (“he’s out of control”). And finally, I make it a moral crusade (“he is annoying others”). Others could sit in the car and feel fine with the muffled crunching. But to me it was intolerable. Why? Some people have more audio sensitivity than others. I suspect that was part of it. But an even larger piece was what I was doing to myself. I was amplifying a minor inconvenience and turning it into a major hardship. By using my parental power to extinguish his behavior, I failed to solve the real problem: my exaggerated stories. This set me up to solve the wrong problem over and over in my relationship with him and others of our children. Oh, to have those years back.

So, option one is to examine whether the story you are running in your head is cranking the volume on the humming/singing. One way to test this theory is to see if there are other areas of your life where your reaction to minor behaviors is similarly out of proportion to that of others’. If so, this could be a terrific opportunity to learn to deescalate your story rather than confront your melodious colleague.

Second, it’s also possible to share the concern with your neighbor in an appropriate way. The best way to do it is to make it about you rather than her. Start with, “I’d like to bring something to your attention that you’re likely unaware of. The walls between our offices don’t dampen sound much. You enjoy singing and humming. I seem to get distracted easily by that kind of sound. It’s my problem, not yours. If you were even able to drop it just a couple of decibels it would make it easier for me to concentrate sometimes. I was reluctant to ask this because it is truly my problem that I react to sound as much as I do. So please don’t get self-conscious. You have every right to enjoy your music. Just wanted to let you know in case there’s an easy way to lower it a little.”

Having had the conversation, it’s important that you follow up in subsequent days with kindness to ensure it doesn’t get weird. Many people feel self-conscious after such a conversation and begin to withdraw and resent those who share feedback. You can lessen the probability of it by small gestures of kindness, or even by checking back in to ask, “Did I make it weird?” and “Please don’t stop humming completely on my account.” If others feel defensive, they can be tempted to turn you into a villain for making your request. Behaving in ways that conflict with that nascent story can nip it in the bud.

Best wishes,

Trainer QA

Motive of Gratitude

I found myself in an interesting conversation a few months ago with a fellow trainer. They shared with me that while they love what they do, they have good and bad days just like anyone else—and that sometimes, on the not-so-good-days, showing up the way we want to or feel we should in the classroom can feel like a stretch. The humanity of the conversation intrigued me. The challenge is not something we often discuss, and yet it’s one we all face: how do we handle the complexity of our own lives as we step into the lives of our participants?

I think we can find inspiration in one of the essential principles from Crucial Conversations: examine your motives.

What were your motives the last time you stepped into your classroom? To share the skills? To “not mess up”? To have a fun learning environment? These are all great considerations that can help foster a good learning experience, but what if we also thought a little more deeply about our motives and added one of gratitude?

In Start With Heart, we talk about ways we can create motives of dialogue. The skills in this section help us:

  • Assess the situation and interrupt feelings that might lead us to poor results.
  • Reflect on our motives and explore what it is we truly want from an experience or relationship.
  • Move forward in a way that aligns with our deepest values.

What if we did something similar the next time we stepped into our classrooms? With a slight twist, we can use a process to interrupt the stress of everyday life that might derail our presentations and better prepare us to step into the classroom with heart. Just like motives guide crucial conversations, motives influence instruction. We can take the principle we teach in Start With Heart and adapt it to ensure that we are cultivating motives of gratitude to set the right learning conditions for our classes. So, the next time you step into your classroom, ask yourself:

What am I thinking about right now? What am I feeling, experiencing, etc.?

If you’re like me, you’re thinking about getting your room set up and connecting with participants. Yet, in the back of your mind, you’re thinking about the fact that you didn’t quite get enough sleep and you’ve got an ever-increasing list of things to get done once you are home.

What do I want for my participants? What am I grateful for? How can I be present with this group?

Instead of staying stuck in the minutia of life (especially this time of year), I remember I am grateful to be able to what I do. I’m grateful that in a world where people often react viscerally to a disagreement, I get to teach and learn about how to interact effectively with others. And I am grateful for the opportunity to create a safe learning space to help others do the same.

How can I help learners get the most from this session?

Focus on the challenges your participants face. Each crucial conversation, accountability issue, influence challenge, or barrier to getting things done is nuanced. It’s important to pay attention to those nuances for each audience so you can speak to their challenges. You might lead a discussion at the end of your session about what skills participants are most grateful for, or find most useful.

Tapping your higher motives and letting them guide your instruction can help you create beautiful opportunities for dialogue and discovery.

And what better way than to consider what we’re grateful for? Whether you’re grateful for the opportunity to help others learn skills, grateful for your position, or even to get up and train that day, gratitude pays off. It pays for you and for your participants. As David Steindl-Rast said, “It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”

We can “start with heart” when we enter our classrooms by fostering gratitude. With motives of gratitude, we create opportunities for learning, application, and even joy as we work to change lives in our organizations and across the world. Next time you step into the classroom, I wish you motives of gratitude.