A difficult conversation case study
I first met head teacher Lisa at one of the Successful Difficult Conversations training days I run and she later booked me for the next stage of the course ‘Flexing your Leadership Style’ which I ran with her leadership team.
During the course of the day, we talked about issues that were ‘bubbling’ away in the school, the kinds of issues that exist in most schools and, in fact, most organisations: a working relationship going through its storming phase, performance issues which needed addressing, and a behaviour issue with the business manager who had, on many occasions, been angry and rude to Lisa in front of others with the most recent being on that same day. Behaviour issues are usually the hardest area to have a difficult conversation about because it feels like we are talking about someone’s personality, but in reality, we’re talking about their behaviour, and, over the course of the day, Lisa and I discussed how to approach this conversation. Lisa knew she needed to have this conversation, even though it would be tough.
3 tips when having a conversation about behaviour (aka conduct)
1) Give the behaviour an appropriate name: rude, lazy, nonchalant. Try to be kind with the name you choose but don’t make it unrecognisable. For example I worked with a deputy who felt another member of staff was lying to her. But she had nothing to prove this, so we decided there were mixed messages.
2) Give examples: it’s crucial when you’re talking about behavior issues that you give examples of when you have seen it. Ideally these need to be examples you have witnessed, but if not you can refer to what others have said.
3) Be ready for ‘I didn’t say anything’: with behaviour we’re talking about what they didn’t say, and a large chunk of communication isn’t spoken. So if someone starts going down the route of saying ‘I didn’t say that’ they could be right but you can explain to them what in their behaviour was being communicated.
I’m always keen to know how successful such a conversation is and I often call heads I’ve worked with to find out and offer further advice where appropriate, so I was delighted when Lisa recounted the meeting she had:
‘My business manager, Jan, had got visibly and verbally angry with me on several occasions and always over, what I would say were, small issues often in front of other members of staff. I knew I had to have a conversation about this; the whole time you know it’s waiting there for you and it’s not going to go away by itself, and so I took the opportunity provided by her performance management meeting which was due.
I told Jan I wanted to talk about some things before we got into her performance management, and that was specifically her behaviour when she got angry with me. She knew this was an issue, and immediately got very upset, crying in the meeting and asking if I wanted her resignation (which I didn’t). I talked to her about how she will sometimes get angry with me and that wasn’t the problem, it was how she dealt with it that needed to change because it wasn’t appropriate for her to speak to me as she had done. I also shared that this issue had been hanging between us for some time and was preventing us moving forward, and that I wanted our working relationship to be good, which was why I decided to have this conversation despite the fact I knew it would be hard for both of us.
Jan knew I’d had to deal with performance issues before and even complemented me saying I’d dealt with them well and consistently; she wanted to know if that was what was about to happen with her. I explained that I was having this conversation because I didn’t want the matter to get that stage, that I wanted to work with her to improve the situation and this was the beginning of that, this wouldn’t be the last time we spoke about it because we would need to keep the door open on our dialogue in order to improve it. Despite getting upset, she heard my message which meant we’d overcome a major hurdle of any difficult conversation and hopefully she would see this as the start of us journeying along the path of resolution. However, when she left the meeting, I couldn’t know what would happen next once she had some time to reflect. She left work early that day which I was fine about as it had clearly been an emotional meeting, however, I did wonder if she would come in the next day which, thankfully, she did.
I followed up with her on the conversation as soon as possible, asking how she felt now she’d had some time to reflect. Jan told me she knew there was an issue and it needed resolving and saw that we were working on that. I re-iterated that she will get angry with me, but it was about dealing with this in a better way and that we need to keep talking about this and, since then, the problem has not arisen again and I feel our relationship is in a far better place than it has ever been. She is now clearer about the appropriate way to deal with the conflicts that arise and knows I am open to take on board her comments in open and honest dialogue.
For me personally, I felt such great relief after having had the conversation, having got the issue out in the open so we could work on resolving it together; there’s a freedom in airing the problem as long as it’s done in a way that lets the other person work towards fixing it as well. If I hadn’t had this conversation, this situation could have gone on indefinitely, our working relationship would have deteriorated, Jan’s behaviour would have jarred against, and damaged, the culture of our school, and it could have turned into capability or disciplinary proceedings, none of which are the outcomes myself or Jan would want. In having a tough but open and honest conversation, we are now firmly on the right path: working together in line with the conduct expected in our school, and, because we have had a tough conversation and got through it, I feel we are more able to tackle other issues as and when they arise.’
About the Author
Sonia Gill is founder of Heads Up, specialising in supporting Head Teachers and School Leaders create an outstanding school culture. https://ukheadsup.com
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