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Having a Plan for Difficult Conversations Decreases Stress, Anxiety

By Greg Scott and Wendy Malich on August 27, 2020 hst Print

As an educational administrator, you may not be able to avoid inevitable challenging encounters with others. Frequently, these conversations happen due to a lack of understanding or communication on the front end of a situation. Being transparent and forthcoming with information in all aspects within the scope of your leadership role will often mitigate both the frequency and the volume of difficult interactions.

Even a leader who is open and a skilled communicator may be forced to traverse through conversations that cause anxiety for one or both parties. Like anything else, having a structured and research-based plan will help increase the success and decrease the angst associated with these situations. In order to prepare for your next high-stress exchange or dialogue, the following tips should help.

TIP #1 – Plan Ahead

  • Prevent any sudden, unexpected meeting that may not have been scheduled. Difficult conversations often may sneak up on you and don’t provide a lot of time for preparation. Allow sufficient time to pass between the request for a meeting and the actual time you sit down together. By doing this, it usually enables emotions to subside, which may give way to rational thought and a productive conversation.
  • Do your research centering upon the person for whom the meeting concerns and have full knowledge of the situation at hand. While this step will not provide you with all of the answers, it does help to be as knowledgeable as possible about both the situation and the individual involved. Also, think ahead as to how much you will be willing to compromise or negotiate before the meeting so you won’t have to figure that out spontaneously.
  • Select the right setting for the meeting, if possible, and try to avoid sitting behind a large desk. This piece of furniture represents a barrier and it may give the impression that you are lording over the meeting space. Choose a table at which all parties can sit around or use individual chairs to eliminate any boundaries. When possible, use a neutral space that may steer all parties away from feeling like they are on the other person’s turf.

TIP #2 – Be Clear and Concise

  • Start the meeting by setting the parameters up front. Make sure everyone involved understands what you are and are not willing to discuss. This step should keep the conversation from being steered off-topic or including anything that is unrelated to the issue you are trying to resolve. Parameters also include starting on time and establishing a definitive point for ending the meeting.
  • Make sure to be clear on important points. Using phrases like, “Does that make sense?” or “Did I explain that well enough?” may help the other party know that you care about their depth of understanding.
  • Repeat the other person’s points back to them. This should not happen after every statement which is made, but this should happen at the end of the meeting. Using your notes, echo back points that they have made and questions that they had throughout the meeting. Don’t leave anything out. Once you have exhausted this list, another question that would help tie things together can be, “Was there anything else I need to consider?” Using this closure technique will indicate to the individual involved that everything he or she had to say was important and that you listened intently.

TIP #3 – Use Empathy

  • Consider how you would approach this same situation, if the roles were reversed, in order to really be successful in the meeting. If you were the coach, teacher, parent or student, what would be important to you? This analysis should include the factors that may have impacted your perspective on the issue at hand. Putting yourself in the shoes of the other party often can lead to a consciousness of how they feel and will help in your decision-making process.
  • Determine where your line for compromise may be drawn. It is usually easier to establish this point once you have considered the issue from the other individual’s perspective. This approach may be impactful in helping to create solutions that you might not have thought of while only looking at everything from one angle.

TIP #4 – Avoid Common Mistakes

  • Assume the worst. Human nature often leads us to make suppositions about the other person’s character, motivation( s) and their anticipated reaction(s). This notion or supposition may influence how you approach the meeting.
  • Dominating the conversation. Active listening allows the other party an opportunity to share frustration, even if not done in a spirit of cooperation. Paying close attention and being aware of non-verbal cues also shows empathy and caring for them as a person, even if the result is not a resolution of the issue at hand.
  • Sending out negative vibes. An unconstructive atmosphere may be created by a leader who exhibits poor body posture during a meeting. Sitting with your arms crossed, making dramatic or emotional facial expressions and reactions, or even checking your phone during the conversation can establish damaging feelings on the other end.
  • Being completely inflexible. Entering the conversation with a closed mind might not miraculously solve the situation that led to it. A rigid approach or mentality may give the impression that you are only having the meeting as a “necessary evil” and not because you truly care about the other person involved. Your reputation as a leader may be viewed as someone who has a fixed or unyielding approach and it will impact your influence over time.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, it may be a helpful reference the next time you are faced with an angry parent, confused student, frustrated employee, or even a possible meeting that leads to a reprimand or termination. With any facet of your leadership responsibilities, your goal should be to positively impact as many people as you can, as often as possible, and for as long as you are planted in your role.