We’ve all got parents who are passionate for their students, who want to make sure that they are doing all that they can to ensure their students success. What happens when that passion comes across as combative? This is a situation every administrator has had come up in their career …also one you may have had as a parent. Either way, it can make or break a relationship if it doesn’t go well. Most parents don’t have the opportunity to have one on one face time with you as the principal, so this is definitely something you want to give though too.
To help dial this one in, we’ve got the greatness of Brad Gustafson, principal extraordinaire and author of “Renegade Leadership“. Brad’s kinda who I wanna be when I grow up, 🙂 Also adding her perspective is Dr. Rachel George, a fellow ASCD Emergent Leader and elementary principal.
When I connect with parents who are upset, I try to really listen for what they are asking for and why. In my experience, parents oftentimes have a very clear idea of what they are looking for, and unfortunately schools are not always able to accommodate their exact requests. In these instances, I strive to offer a few different options that may be helpful instead of simply denying a specific request. I always try to couple this with sentiments that convey our sincere desire to partner and make things better for their child. Lastly, I tend to gravitate to the telephone as opposed to working through difficult issues via email. This not only helps preserve the relationship, but it enhances my ability to be responsive while also being more efficient.
Check it out! (Shameless plug, I’m their guest for this topic!)
I used to get so nervous when a combative parent would call or come into the office. In fact, I remember closing the door to my office and practicing the conversation before I walked out to greet them in the foyer just to calm my nerves. As time progressed, my approach to working with combative parents has changed and so has my outlook on these interactions. Where I once hated these conversations, I now look forward to them and embrace the experience as it makes me a better leader and it helps me learn how I
can better serve my families and students. Through the years, I have found the following things to be helpful when working with combative parents.
Prior to meeting with parents that seem angry or upset about situations I do my best to seek background information as to the parent’s state of emotion. Through seeking information of staff members or probing questions to the parents themselves prior to meeting you can often find that their state of combativeness stems from issues that are of a personal nature to them and totally unrelated to the current situation. Or perhaps, it can often be that or they have a sense of things that have happened in the past regarding school based issues that they feel have been unresolved to their liking and they have piled up. This then renders them unable to deal with the current because they cannot get over the past.
Set ground rules if needed:
If the need to meet and work things out becomes paramount, then setting the stage for the meeting is important. There are some parents that you already know are going to come in and explode. Most all of the time I can handle that situation without preface but if another person is in the room, like a teacher, I set ground rules before we even get going. I explain that we are here because we all care about their student and/or whatever we are going to talk about. From there, I explain that during our meeting we will seek a complete understanding of what led to the impasse and will hear all sides so that we attack problems not people. This means that we are going to talk to each other respectfully with our tone and language. I ensure, so that it is clear to all involved in any discussion of this nature, that at any point the tone turns abusive or combative that we will stop the meeting and communicate at another time. Usually this public pronouncement sets the tone for the meeting. In seven years I have only had to stop three parents and adjourn the meeting.
Be intentional about body positioning and location:
Depending upon the parent and the content of the meeting, I am facilimanipulative about where I sit. My goal is to make all conversations, of any nature, be comfortable and personable. However, we all know that sometimes things aren’t conducive to that desire. Authoritative or personable, behind the desk or seated side by side positioning and proximity provide an appropriate relational boundary of expectations. If I need to enlist some authority on a situation, issue or relationship, I sit across from the parent at my desk. If I want to set the tone of meeting them halfway and that I am open and understanding with my opinion, I sit on the side of my desk near them. Those of course are extremes. The majority of the time I seek for a relational conversation and to speak from the heart regarding an emotional topic. That is when I sit next to them on their side of my desk. While some might give me a hard time about how much thought I put into where I sit, it does make a difference.
Actively listen, take notes, and clarify:
Regardless of where I sit, I always take notes and listen to the parent. I try not to talk until I have heard their entire story, perspective, or concern. I do this not to pacify them just to make them feel heard but so that I can clearly understand what they are conveying to me and so that I can make sure to ask clarifying questions if there is any confusion. Just like us, when we get really passionate or emotional, our conversations can go in circles and we can be unclear about how we would like it resolved. Through it all, I take notes. Not a crazy amount of notes but enough so that I capture the conversation and what I need to follow-up on.
Summarize and seek agreement of fact.
Always summarize the position of the parent as you have understood it at the conclusion of their argument. I know it sounds somewhat legalistic but it reassures them that you have listened and been attentive to their concern while it also ensures that you have an understanding of their perspective. This will also allow you to seek clarification and/or provide relevant facts, information or evidence that may be contrary to their points.
Apologize when necessary and don’t hold it back.
If we’ve screwed up I admit it and I’ve learned that an apology goes a long way. If we were in the wrong or could have done something better, I admit it. You aren’t helping anyone when you withhold an apology that is rightfully deserved. Often this acknowledgment is the first step in repairing the relationship and turning the conversation into how things can be fixed. Perhaps even more important though is apologizing even if there has no wrongdoing. Acknowledging and caring for someone’s displeasure and level of anxiety regardless of right or wrong can often lead to a strong alliance. Being humble and caring as to any and all circumstances can often lead to more positive relationships in the future.
Make sure to follow up.
One of the fastest ways to break down trust with your parents is to not follow through. During these meetings, usually something always comes out of it that requires follow-up such as seeking additional information about an incident, investigating further, having the counselor follow-up with the student or something else. If this isn’t done, the relationship with the parent will be gone. Therefore, I am very intentional about following up and following through with all agreements made in the meeting. I want parents to trust me and to trust my word. The only way to prove this is through my actions. The final thing that I always remind myself of is that the parents are coming from a place of care. They are in your office or on the phone because they care about their child and they want what they believe is best for them.
On a side note, the book” Thanks for the Feedback” has been a huge game changer in how I view conversations, interactions and general feedback. If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it as it has shown me that everyone has some truth and insight that can help you improve.
Whoa!! Is that some great advice or WHAT??? I hope ya’ll are learning as much from this series as I am! We have just two more questions, and these last two are doozies!
Missed my other posts in this series?
Q1: What is your go to strategy for team building?
Q2: What is something you do EVERY year, without fail?
Q3: What is something you wished you knew as a first year administrator?
Q4: What has gotten easier through the years? Harder?
Q5: Where do I even start to build a culture of innovation?
Q6: How do I become the instructional leader?
Q7: How does the leader model RISK TAKING?
Q8: What are you reading to GROW as a leader?
Q9: How do you know who to hire?
Q10: As the leader, what are you MOST proud of at your school?