Hands up if you dread initiating and managing difficult conversations.

While we may dread them, they are a necessary part of parenting life, especially when parenting children with a disability and additional needs.

The thing is, being able to negotiate difficult conversations is a skill we should all try to master. It’s often the difficult conversations that help get positive outcomes for our child. It’s the hard meetings and tackling the challenging issues that clear the air and help both sides get on the same page.

Unfortunately, we can’t stop avoiding the meetings we need to have to get the help and support our kids need. But, it is possible to initiate and manage these conversations without damaging relationships or becoming an emotional wreck.

Difficult Conversations at School

Difficult conversation see two sides going in with different views and opinions. Often, emotions are heightened because each side knows how important this conversation is. Schools will have a position based on beliefs, policy, legislation, guidelines, procedures or precedent, having to take into account everyone at the school.

Meanwhile, parents will have views based on the individual needs of their child, advice they’ve received from others, their own beliefs, expectations and assumptions and examples they’ve seen elsewhere. Each viewpoint is valid, although they can be very different.

With such varying viewpoints, it’s unsurprising that the school setting is the place for so many difficult conversations in our lives. Over the course of our child’s educational journey, there will be many difficult conversations we will need to initiate or manage. You may have to approach the school about bullying, they may bring up your child’s attitude and behaviour, you might have concerns about a teacher. While no-one likes conflict or confrontation, it’s possible to approach difficult conversations in a way that will get a positive result while maintaining productive relationships with the school.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have strategies I’ve used over the years to help me when I’ve had to have difficult conversations. But, before we get to the strategies, let’s talk about relationship management.

The Importance of Relationship Management

We can’t have a discussion about difficult conversations without first discussing the importance of relationship management.

The fact is, if you cultivate a positive relationship with your child’s school, you’ll find you’ll dread the phone calls and the meetings a lot less. A strong partnership built on respect, honesty and a shared vision, goes a long way to reducing the difficult conversations you’ll need to have. And, if you still need to have them, they won’t be as intimidating because you’ve already created a connection and a platform to have respectful discussion.

For me, relationship management is based on the following principles:

  • introducing yourself
  • taking the time to listen
  • setting objectives
  • understanding motives
  • focusing on solutions
  • knowing your value
  • being creative
  • following through
  • being genuine
  • being available

It’s important to try to build a positive relationship from the beginning with your child’s school – it will make the difficult conversations a whole lot less difficult. Learn more about these principles – Relationship Management 101.

Image of the back of a man in a suit sitting in a business chair. He is sitting across from a boy with brown hair and a woman with dark hair as if having a difficult conversation.

10 Ways to Manage Difficult Conversations

Obviously, establishing positive relationships will help reduce the number of difficult conversations you’ll have, but it’s not going to eliminate them altogether. So, here’s 10 ways to manage difficult conversations with your child’s school. These approaches have worked for me across a range of school settings – I hope they work for you too.

Approach the conversation as an opportunity

Image of an open book on a table with the text "approach the conversation as an opportunity to communicate."

Reset your thinking when approaching difficult conversations. Start seeing them as an opportunity rather than a threat. When you get down to it, the conversation is a chance for you and the school to talk together, to go over issues and work out a solution. It might be hard to hear some of the things that will be said but, this is a chance for you to be involved in the process to move forward.

I’m not saying that positive thinking alone is going to solve the issue in your next difficult conversation. However, heading into the meeting viewing it as an opportunity, rather than as a threat, makes a huge different in the result. Going in with a more positive mindset will make you more solution focused, less defensive and more open minded, which will help achieve a better result for both sides. Give it a try it next time around.

Prepare for the meeting

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Start by asking for an agenda or points of discussion for the meeting. Take time to think about the points you want to cover during the discussion. Bring along your notes and take a notebook too, to record the main issues discussed. If you feel you’ll struggle with your emotions, write down what you want to say (like a script) and stick to it. This way you’ll remain on track, even if you find yourself upset, angry or frustrated.

When preparing for the discussion, anticipate the school’s response to your points. Understand their motives and their point of view to come up with alternate ways to counter them. Preparing ahead of time means you’ll be less likely to be surprised and will help you feel more confident and less stressed going into the discussion.

Focus on Finding Common Ground

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You already know you and the school will be coming from very different points of view. Instead of starting out combative and at odds, focus on finding common ground. Amid the differences you might hold, there is one common element – your child, their student. Focus on your similarities, rather than your differences, to stay focused and solution oriented during the meeting.

Centre the discussion around your child’s needs, not around the differences you have with the school. It’s more effective to talk about shared interests and your common goal, which is to give your child the best education possible. Then you can share your input and experience and provide more effective options the school could use in future. This is a powerful technique that builds trust and goodwill and gets you both focused on finding an acceptable solution to both sides. 

Practise Emotional Regulation

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Our emotions will get the better of us sometimes. We’re human, after all. However, it’s a fact that we’re not going to get the result we’re after if we lose our cool in a meeting. So, it’s important that we practise emotional regulation so we can stay calm, stay in control, and stay on track to get the outcome we’re after.

Practise emotional regulation by building quiet time into each day, finding a way to stay calm when stressed (deep breathing, meditation, etc.), being kind to yourself, preparing yourself for hard situations and having a trusted person to rely on and vent to. It’s so important to work on our emotions as this is the key to being able to initiate and manage difficult conversations.

Stick to the Facts

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Make sure you always concentrate on the facts and try not to get caught up in assumptions. Knowing your facts and sticking to them in difficult conversations helps you stay on track and communicate a strong message. It also makes your arguments more credible and gives you a firm foundation as you navigate the conversation. 

Prepare for the meeting, so you know your facts. Take notes, list your points and be ready to back up what you say. When you are already stressed and worried about a difficult conversation, being caught out with non-specific or wrong claims makes the situation infinitely worse. Be careful in what you say during the conversation and stay safe by sticking to the facts.

Request More Time

Image of a white analogue wall clock on a speckled background with the words, "don't feel pressured to respond straight away. Ask for more time if you need it."

You should be given adequate notice to get ready for a difficult conversation. If you feel you don’t have enough time to prepare, be honest and ask for the meeting to be rescheduled. Don’t feel obligated to agree to a meeting time if it doesn’t suit or give you enough time to prepare.

During the meeting, take the same approach. If you’re asked for input into an important issue for your child, don’t be afraid to ask for time to consider and consult. It’s better to take the time to think through issues fully than agree to something on the fly because you felt pressured to make a quick decision.

The same goes when the meeting is over. Take your time to digest what was discussed and then get back to the school with your response. Don’t feel pressured to respond before you’re ready. It’s important you have the opportunity to provide quality input into any decision that’s made.

Take a Support Person Along

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During difficult conversations you can feel outnumbered and alone, which makes it even harder to have a meaningful discussion or believe you’re being listened to at all. Don’t feel you have to do it on your own. Bring along a support person to help you during the difficult conversation. Your partner, a family member, a trusted friend, therapist, school chaplain or counsellor can give you much needed support.

A support person can keep you on track, remind you of points you haven’t yet made and provide extra insight and evidence if needed. They can also help debrief after the meeting, giving you insight into how they think it went and ideas for going into your next difficult conversation. There are safety in numbers. Balance the numbers on your side by taking someone with you to navigate the difficult conversation.

Listen With Respect

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There’s a saying, you only catch flies with honey. If you want to be heard and respected, you need to lead by example and do the same. You know yourself that you wouldn’t respond positively to a negative or belligerent approach from the school, so make sure you come to the meeting ready to listen and respond with respect.

Being prepared with notes and points ahead of time will also allow you to stop and truly listen to what the school is saying. Instead of trying to take in what’s being said while simultaneously coming up with a response, being prepared gives you the chance to listen more closely. You can take on board what’s being said and focus on a joint solution, based on honest feedback and respect.

Get Everything in Writing

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It’s important to get everything in writing, before, during and after the difficult conversation. Ask for a copy of the agenda or a rundown of the points to be covered beforehand, so you know what’s going to be discussed. If minutes are taken during the conversation, make sure you have the chance to review and amend them before signing off on them.

Take your own notes and follow up with an email listing your takeaways from the conversation. This is especially useful if it’s an informal meeting and no minutes were taken or if your conversation occurred over the phone. This starts a paper trail and gets confirmation of what was discussed, based on your notes. This could be crucial evidence in future, should issues or disagreement arise following the meeting.

Be Proactive Following the Discussion

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Having the difficult conversation can be tough but it’s even harder if nothing changes following the meeting. That’s why it’s important to be proactive following the discussion. This includes following through with your actions (sending through reports, signing off minutes, following up with specialists). It also includes chasing up the school on their actions, to ensure the agreed outcomes are put in place to everyone’s satisfaction.

Don’t be shy in calling people out if they don’t follow through. Bring it back to the common ground you’ve found, in both sides wanting the best for your child. It doesn’t have to feel personal or awkward. When you stick to the facts and approach things in a respectful way, centering your child, the school will be more likely to take on board your question and act on it.

These strategies have helped me navigate difficult conversations in special education, primary and high school settings over the last 15 years. To be honest, I never enjoy difficult conversations (and I never will!), but using these strategies keep me focused, solution oriented and open to finding positive solutions with my child’s school.

What are your strategies for managing difficult conversations with schools?