You’ve likely been there—it’s pick-up time and Sam’s mom corners you about why their child continues to get in trouble at school when they behave so well at home. Or your administrator or supervisor tells you to meet them in their office to discuss a recent issue with your work. (side note, you have union rights in this instance-see below)

These types of conversations can be stressful, particularly if the person you’re talking with is a difficult individual or your job is on the line.

The following are ways you can navigate these tough conversations so everyone involved receives the answers and information needed while maintaining positive relationships going forward.

Effective Communicators
People who can navigate crucial conversations in difficult situations understand all sides and get those viewpoints into the conversation. Think of all the times you wanted to speak up in a meeting or say something to a parent or your boss but went into “silent mode” because you were afraid you would get in trouble, didn’t want to rock the boat, or just didn’t know how to voice your opinion properly. Now think back, did staying silent ever help your situation? The answer is likely “no.” Finding a safe space to share and have an open dialogue will put you on the right track. Note the word dialogue—free-flowing conversation between all parties involved is needed.

Focus on Self-Reflection First
Before beginning any conversation, experts advise you connect with your internal voice before you speak, remembering you are not speaking for yourself, but rather you are a representative of your school community. This self-reflection is crucial before beginning a challenging conversation, as you remember you can’t change a challenging person but you can change how you respond to challenging behavior.

“I was surprised to realize that some of the traits that are dealing with difficult people I have. I realize now that difficult behavior not only comes from unkindness or meanness but other things that can drain you as a professional- stress, being tired and I maybe rely too much on my colleagues as friends to deal with issues.”

Kate Stroman

Understanding and validating the other person’s feelings and emotions will let them know you understand their side of the story and shows them you are truly listening to them. Being an active listener and asking open-ended questions before responding will help defuse a difficult conversation. To make sure you’re understanding, it can also help to repeat what you hear the other person saying.

Keep the volume low
When you’re in a conversation with someone challenging, don’t match the tone or volume of the other person. Take a breath and your response will be appropriate. Ask the person you are dealing with to speak to you in a respectful manner. If the response is not kind, this is when you ask to take a break and come back to the conversation when things have settled.

Document, Document, Document
Keep records and timelines of everything to ensure you have a detailed narrative of any conversation that could end up being problematic for you in the future. If the conversation is in person, let that person know you will follow up with an email, and in that email you will document the details of the in-person conversation, creating a physical record.

Weingarten Rights

If you are ever in a conversation, and you believe there could be disciplinary consequences, remember your union Weingarten Rights which allow you to have union representation if you believe a conversation is going to lead to action which will impact your employment in any way. If you need support, your MEA rep is there for you. Click here to contact your MEA rep.