Tough Conversations

 

Tough conversations

  

A teacher who has known me for many years, knows that I appreciate my job because of the energy I receive every day from teachers and students. Yes, Sunday night is not always easy on the soul but once I’m in the building on Monday morning, all is well. I avoid my office as much as possible during school time and work the job in classrooms and hallways. 

It doesn’t hurt my allegiance to the job that many members of our staff have been together for years and those that have been recently hired have melded in nicely with the family. Truly, it is all about relationships. 

Yet, in our job as building administrators, there are times when we can’t avoid the tough conversations. Good people make mistakes. Conflict can happen when perspective and personalities collide. That’s the time the Principal needs to step in and take the conflict head on. Rick Dufour has stated that Principals should confront those individuals who are not committed to the values of their team or professional learning community:

They are willing to use their authority to break down the walls of educator isolation and create new norms of collaboration and collective responsibility for student learning.

But when you’re in the midst of the conflict with people you care about, having tough conversations is one of the hardest parts of the job. I have not always done it well, but here are some things I’ve learned:

1. Eat the frog

Productivity expert Brian Tracy says that we should tackle our most difficult and important task first thing every morning. The concept is that if we can “eat the frog”, everything else will seem easy. Don’t wait for the day to go by. Procrastinating may result in your “deciding” not to tackle the issue at all. And, the conflict may fester if you wait too long to intervene. 

2. Prepare for results

I prepare bullet points for every tough conversation I have in person or on the phone. There is a natural tendency to lighten the exchange with your colleague so if you don’t plan for the result you want, you simply won’t get there.

3. Lead with the punchline 

The tendency is to begin a difficult chat with small talk to lighten the load. Writing in the Harvard Business ReviewPeter Bregman suggests that leading with the tough news will ensure that the recipient will hear the constructive criticism with clarity. 

4. Listen as much as you can

If you want the colleague to change a habit or behavior and be personally reflective, they need to know that you care about their improvement. Validate whatever response they may have…if it’s valid of course. But listen either way. 

5. Take good notes. 

A tough conversation might take unexpected twists and turns. Be sure that the meeting is documented accurately.

6. Follow up (both right after and set date for next meeting)

Long term success is based on at least a second follow-up meeting to reinforce your message. Set a date for that meeting before the first meeting is complete.  

7. Assume good intentions

Most people want to do well at their job and truly care about professionalism. Let good intentions be the default unless you know otherwise.

 

There is great satisfaction in caring boldness and seeing progress as the result of these tough conversations. 

48 Comments

  1. Greg said:

    Brief post but very succinct and extremely beneficial for any principal. Challenging people who are not committed to the values of their team or professional learning community actually reinforces the good work of the majority. I firmly believe doing this, in the right way as outline above, lifts morale and encourages high standards.

    Thanks for the post.

    Greg.

    December 28, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Hi Greg-said perfectly. Growth doesn’t happen without challenge.

      Bill

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  2. Letetia said:

    This conversation is so timely in respect to me. I am about to change role this January from teacher to an Assistant Principal. I have been reading several articles that offers advice and guidance to new administrators and found this article to be very profound.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Letetia

    December 28, 2014
    Reply
    • zay said:

      Good luck!!! I went from a teacher to an assistant principal to principal in 2 years.

      December 29, 2014
      Reply
    • Deborah said:

      Congratulations on your upcoming position! Did you have prior admin experience in addition to teaching? I am trying to move into administration, but I can’t seem to get an interview. When I answer the questions about admin experience I put zero years and I think that the system is only pulling candidates with experience. I have experience on School Improvement as a a department chair. One superintendent told me that I can’t use that to say that I have experience in an admin position, but yet another one told me to count it. Any advice on how I can break into it?

      December 31, 2014
      Reply
      • Bill Carozza said:

        Hi Deborah:

        I would say state your admin experience as anything within the leadership realm-just be honest about it. I was a Middle School Coordinator once upon a time and that was enough to get me my first job. Up here in New England, there are quite a few admin jobs open. Tough jobs as most of you know. Feel free to contact me directly at wcarozza@mac.com.

        Bill

        January 1, 2015
        Reply
      • Claire said:

        Hi Deborah, as someone on the leadership journey myself ( also about to embark on a new AP job this year), I would recommend using the term ‘teacher leader’ and listing the way you draw teams of teachers from your year level together to complete projects or run groups within your school, even raising your interactions with parents in your conflict resolution skills. One thing I’ve found is that the people who will hire you don’t expect you to have all the skills but they do want to know you can identify them within your current circle of influence and where you see yourself applying these in the future. Good luck with it all!!

        January 7, 2015
        Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      HI Letetia:

      Thanks-glad it helps a bit. There some great feedback in the comments too that you should check out. Let me know if I can help in any way.

      Bill

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  3. I wonder what you think about this addition, #8 Coach Forward Which means going forward coach the colleague forward in ways that matter and away from ways that create conflict or problems.

    December 28, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      HI Maureen,

      Love it! I often think about sports metaphors and the need to “coach up”…we see all the time where teams with less talent continue to be winners (such as my beloved NE Patriots).

      Bill

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  4. Ken Edwards said:

    Nice brief piece (reminder?) loaded with good information. I am the sole site administrator for a rural 500 student 9-12 HS & have been trying to make some changes with our staff. Dawned on me recently that I we were not making good progress because I’d been too lenient on those who wanted to continue in the “old ways.” There comes a time when you have to talk to those types. I especially like Tip #6 – reinforces the immediate conversation is not a “one & done” but that there will be a revisiting of the issue. Also, do not forget to start with Tip #7 as the basis for the conversation (at least the first time).

    December 29, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Hi Ken:

      You have one challenging job! My first admin job was a K-8 with 500 kiddos and no AP. I was in over my head but I learned so much. Finding the sweet spot where staff knows you genuinely care about them while holding firm to the important values or non-negotiables is the key. “Winging it” doesn’t work so well with the veteran staff.

      Bill

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  5. Val said:

    All good points in your blog, Chris. Listen as much as you can is most valid, as numerous times, I have found that providing an ear to concerns should not simply be passive……..for this tends to allow for digressive information, which usually justs bogs everything down.
    Somehow I how feel that an uplifting mode can also be added most times, with appropriate humour to lesson tensions.

    Thanks for this blog!
    Val

    December 29, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Hi Val:

      Yes! Humor is huge. Your teachers need to know that the world is not falling apart (well, except the most serious of situations)…that you are dedicated to improvement and this is just another way for the Principal to teach.

      Bill

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  6. Ruth said:

    Very timely article. I’m a new principals going into my third month. Previous supervisory experience but found this encouraging.

    December 29, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Hi Ruth:

      Congrats on the new position. Been tempted to go after Sups jobs and may still at some point, but I really believe the Principal’s job is the most vital position in admin.

      Bill

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  7. Diane Devine said:

    Even though I am not an administrator, my math coach’s role often leads to the “tough conversations.” Thank you for your list of ways of handling these conversations. Some are familiar, but others will be very helpful.

    December 29, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Thanks Diane. Truly, we should move toward shared leadership in our buildings where the Principal is “the lead learner”.

      Bill

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  8. Donna said:

    Great advice. I chuckled a bit only because I have found myself doing what you have learned not to do and feel I now have a bit more direction. Thank you for your insight.

    December 29, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Hey Donna-thanks. Mistakes are the great teacher! I’m just thankful I survived them.

      Bill

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  9. I have another new principal, this is my third principal and my 8th year teaching. This is his second year as principal. We have a new assistant principal this year. This is her first year out of the classroom.

    I am having to spend my Christmas break writing a rebuttal because of being written up for asking for help in a situation I had never encountered. I won’t go into the situation, however, if they, both principal and assistant principal, had followed the above steps, they would have recognized it was a misunderstanding due to lack of communication. They didn’t want to hear my side at all.

    I had to have my union rep with me. It is a mess…all because no one listened.

    Thank you for printing these. I hope my principal reads them and starts using them!
    Betsy

    December 29, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Hi Betsy:

      I’m so sorry about this. One thing I had to learn early on is the habit of asking for forgiveness, even for the little things. If I am grouchy toward a teacher, I don’t feel right until I go to them and clear the air. This doesn’t make a leader weak…it makes one strong. Respect comes from others recognizing the care and goodness in their leaders. Even if your Principal may be wrong, spend some time in your prep thinking about his perspective. He may actually learn quite a bit from you.

      Bill

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  10. Estela Calata said:

    Thank you for posting these tips.

    My former principal needs to follow this. I felt no one listened to my side of the story and she brought a whole bunch of people to diminish my side of the story. She took the side of her dear friend.

    December 30, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Hi Estela:

      I’m sorry to hear that. So often leaders are scared and they go to their comfort zone which in your case is her friend. Perhaps you are or are going to be a building leader who will work hard to be fair and caring. It takes courage.

      Bill

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  11. Robert said:

    Thanks for the advice. I am currently working on my MSA and this will be good advice as I move into an internship in the fall of 2015. I am learning more about the importance of making sure that both students and staff members are working together to better the education of all involved in their perspective school building now that I will be moving into a supervisor position in the future.

    December 30, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Hey Robert,

      I found that the area I received the least training on – and the one I spend most of my time on – is personnel… working well with people. In my early years I had to rely on whatever natural skill I had but I made so many mistakes. It reminds me of the lack of training that teachers receive in classroom management. Let me know if I can help in any way. Contact me anytime at wcarozza@mac.com.

      Bill

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  12. dj said:

    Great points. I’m a new principal this year and find that I am not being as impactful as I want to be. Much of it stemming from not having the “right” conversations with the necessary follow-up. This will keep me mindful of the way the work HAS to be done. Thank you.

    December 30, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Yes! In my early years as a Principal, I was afraid of losing my standing with the staff if I had to have a tough conversation. The opposite was actually true…while the short term may be difficult, over time your respect will grow by having these conversations.

      Bill

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  13. Lisa Wilber said:

    Great advice regarding “Tough Conversations” that may be had with parents, colleagues or peers. Love to hear you spend most of your time where the action is, the frontline. It sets a tone that you care and are actively involved in
    your professional learning community. The positive energy created by learning is truly contagious.

    December 30, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Thanks so much Lisa. You could even expand the concept to marriages. A piece of advice I’d have for my daughter (who is getting married this year) is to resolve conflicts with your spouse before the sun comes up. Similar truth with colleagues.

      Bill

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  14. Bob said:

    I appreciate this concept. I’ve heard it referred to as “Grasping the Nettle”. I found myself letting things go by without addressing them up front. I made suggestions, but at times didn’t bring clarity to the situation. Bullet points are important here. And to improve in my learning in the area I have read an excellent books that focuses on this issue: “Crucial Accountability”. In order for all this to be effective, especially if we lean toward an authoritarian style, it is critical that we communicate value and respect for the person with whom we are speaking. Point number four will help to do that.

    December 31, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Thanks Bob. I checked out “Crucial Accountability” and I found a PDF from a workshop with that theme. Check it out here. Love your insistence on respect and care for the person we’re speaking to. Our position as admins are a privilege really.

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  15. Rich TenEyck said:

    One of the best resources I’ve found for the development of the skills needed to feel successful in tough conversation is Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. She provides excellent practical advice for the steps involved in accomplishing the pieces identified in the blog. I wish (as I’m sure do many of the people I’ve worked) that I had found this much earlier in my career.

    December 31, 2014
    Reply
  16. G Cooke said:

    If you don’t eat that frog, odds are it becomes something less tasty the longer you wait….

    December 31, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Great line! Of course, for the Cajun food lovers out there, maybe replace frog with something less appealing 🙂

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  17. Shawn Hurt said:

    Very good tip! I am a principal and I like everyone of those strategies when dealing with difficult situations.

    December 31, 2014
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Hey Shawn-thanks so much. Over the years, I’ve actually enjoyed (that may be an overstatement) some tough conversations because of the joy that comes from knowing that you are making a difference for kids…and hopefully doing so in a respectful way.

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  18. Mark said:

    Great tips, one other key point/underpinning for any of these approaches I’ve found helpful is to always go back to our purpose – doing the best we can to educate all of our students. And often when these conversations become necessary it is because someone forgot our true purpose.

    January 1, 2015
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Thanks Mark. Yes! Staying focused on what’s important is crucial. Part of the prep for a tough meeting might be a review of the school’s goals and your own philsophy that is articulated in writing.

      Bill

      January 1, 2015
      Reply
  19. Betsy Gavron said:

    I have been an administrator for the last seven years and your tough conversation tips resonate and provide great advice. While I love the concept of “Eat the Frog” and prefer to do difficult things first, I often try to plan tough conversations for the end of the day, so that the staff member has time to sit with the feedback before having to turn around and teach students. Hard conversations can leave one feeling emotional, and I want the staff member to be at the top of his or her game when teaching. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    January 2, 2015
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Hi Betsy-excellent point. End of the day is certainly traditional for truly bad news. Sometimes Friday is the best so that there is the weekend reflection time available. I think of “Eating the Frog” as doing it as soon as possible-probably the next day after determining the need to intervene. Thanks so much for YOUR wisdom.

      Bill

      January 2, 2015
      Reply
  20. Terry Warren said:

    I am a recently-retired educator with 38 years of experience as a teacher and principal. This is one of the absolute best succinct pieces of advise that ANY manager of supervisor, not just those in education, should read and incorporate into his or her leadership style. I like Betsy Gavron’s suggestion about conducting tough conversations at the end of the day, when feasible, to allow a staff member to be on top of his or her game.

    January 2, 2015
    Reply
    • Bill Carozza said:

      Hi Terry:

      Thanks for your kind comments. I am blessed to have a Superintendent who is a great role model of care and integrity and is only looking for growth and reflection anytime he has had “tough conversations” with me.

      Bill

      January 2, 2015
      Reply
  21. Chip Spradley said:

    Bill,

    I enjoyed your article. I am a ninth year AP and I still struggle with this part of the job, especially now being at a new school, trying to FORM relationships but set expectations at the same time. That’s verrrry difficult. Do you have a personal email address that I could send something to not to be posted here?

    January 5, 2015
    Reply
  22. Trevor said:

    Excellent topic, and one we as leaders must embrace. Susan Scott, using her model of “fierce conversations”, provides an outline for conducting such discussions, beginning with a 60 second opening statement. I’ve used the model with excellent results many times, and a number of the elements mentioned in your article are key. Her planning points include:

    1. Name the issue: “I want to talk with you about the effect ____ is having on ___.
    2. Use a specific example that illustrates the behaviour you wish to change.
    3. Describe your emotions around the issue.
    4. Clarify why this is important – what is at stake for you, others or the organisation.
    5. Identify your contribution(s) to the problem and own/apologise if needed.
    6. Indicate your desire to resolve the issue: “I want to resolve this with you – (restate problem).”
    7. Invite a response and listen.

    Scott also suggests we “let the silence do the heavy lifting.” Often in such situations, we, as leaders, can feel the need to fill silence, sometimes letting people “off the hook” to avoid discomfort or awkwardness. However silence can be the impetus for thought, reflection, and ownership, helping the other party recognise their role and accountability in resolving the problem.

    Once the other party has responded, focus on interaction. Inquire deeper into the person’s views or beliefs, use paraphrasing to confirm perceptions, and dig for full understanding. Make sure they know you understand their position and acknowledge their stake in the matter, then set toward a resolution. Using what was learned, determine where you are now, what is needed for a resolution, and where you need to be. State this new understanding clearly, and determine (or clearly outline) how you move forward to reach the goal. Be sure to have a method to hold all parties both accountable, but more importantly, able.

    January 5, 2015
    Reply
  23. Dennis G. Parham said:

    You’re exactly right on “eating the frog”. I think too many times administrators think that the problem will eventually get resolved if it is just ignored. This seldom works and is not leadership. I think that when I was direct with teachers, they appreciated knowing exactly where they stood and liked the fact that I wasn’t playing games with them. Also, other teaches appreciated it too.

    January 5, 2015
    Reply

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