How to prepare for difficult and confronting conversations. A teacher's guide.

When you say you are a teacher, people think you are the best talker. Someone who dares to speak and keeps on rattling on and on and on.

True. Besides teaching, you must be the best communicator. You need authenticity, empathy and a good listening ear in order to resolve conflicts and detect problems in the classroom.

Students are a source of information, but it’s hard to get everything out of them. You need the right questions, the right level of empathy and the right body language.

There are a lot of things that influence the outcome of a conversation. Take a look at this post. Here I’ve summed up those important factors. I also explained the basics of a conversation and showed you the framework.

In this post I’ll give you some tips on how to react and talk with students in very particular situations such as delivering bad news, resolving conflicts, coaching, setting boundaries and more.

Different sorts of teacher conversations

When choosing the right kind of conversation depends on the goal of your conversation. The conversation will get a different character when the goal changes.

The problem exploratory conversation

If you determine a problem, you would want to inform yourself with other colleagues, the student, the administration, an expert, and so on. This conversation is called the “problem exploratory conversation”.

A good problem exploratory conversation gives you information about the person, the problem and their need of help. On top of that, it also offers the other the opportunity to talk things out and to vent his spleen.

A few important steps in a problem exploratory conversation:

Step 1: goal and occasion

To start the conversation you have to indicate why you want to keep this conversation and what the occasion is for it to happen. Use concealing “I” messages to tell your conversation partner you are in need of a clarification, explanation or more information. You want to express your concerns. Show that you are really interested in the story of your partner. This way you are creating an atmosphere of safety and trust.

Step 2: pose an open question to start

Invite your conversation partner for its input on the subject. With an open question the input will be broader.

Step 3: ask clear and targeted questions

By asking open question as much as possible, the other will put a maximum contribution to the questions. You still guide the conversation, so you get exactly the information you are looking for. Listen actively, take on an open posture and ask supplementary questions.

Step 4: summarize

Paraphrase a lot. By paraphrasing you are verifying whether you understood the other correctly. Your partner also knows that you are listening to his story. He feels treated seriously. Summarize the content and your partners feelings. For instance: “So, you are feeling ignored and excluded because you are new in this class?” Watch your body language. If there are several parties, try to be multilateral partial.

Step 5: close the conversation

Close the conversation with a global summary of the core of the conversation. Don’t forget to make agreements about what is going to happen with the information. You can also plan a potential follow-up conversation.

Pitfalls

  • Talk too much yourself.
  • Handing over the control of the conversation. You aren’t obtaining the information you need.
  • Ask too many rhetorical or closed questions.
  • Provide not enough time for the conversation.

The “help-and-advice” conversation

If there is specific request for help, you can support the student with help and advice.

The help conversation is the most effective way to help people to come up with a solution for their problem. A self thought solution always works better than one that has been talked into.

Some important steps in this conversation:

Step 1: exploration of the problem

First, you have to find out what’s going on. Here you might make some agreements about confidentiality. Use clear and open questions. Try to use I messages like: “I was wondering… What keeps me concerned is,… What I don’t quite understand …”. Explore the problem and its context.

Step 2: identify the needs or expectations of the other

By listening actively and ask open question, you try to identify the others needs and expectations. Does your conversation partner wants a solution for his problem? Does he just wants to let off steam? What does he want to do? What is plausible, what not?

Step 3: identify your own needs and the willingness and possibilities to help

Lack of time, lack of expertise, too much on your mind, etc. All these reasons can mean that you can’t conduct the conversation. Use I messages to make clear why you can or can’t proceed with the conversation. Indicate how much time you have or try to make a new appointment for the conversation.

Step 4: explore possible solutions

List all possible solutions. Challenge the other to come up with solutions. You don’t have to do all the work. For instance: “Have you already thought about possible solutions? What should be done according to you? are there any other possibilities?”.

Step 5: judge the possible solutions

Step 6: choose one solution or formulate advice

During this step it’s important to check what you are achieving with the chosen solution. Does the solution yield the desired results? Are their unwanted side-effects? When you bring forward your own solution, the conversation changes in an advice conversation.

Step 7: Plan a follow-up conversation

Check if the chosen solution was also the best one.

Pitfalls

  • Take too little time to explore the problem and shift too quickly to solutions.
  • Stimulate the other insufficiently to find a solution on his own.
  • Give advice too quickly.

The motivational talk

A motivational talk is suited when, for example, you want to stimulate a student to increase his efforts. Students and parents can be not motivated to cooperate with the actions the school proposes for all kinds of reasons. Try to motivate them to engage more.

Some important steps in this conversation:

Step 1: explore the situation

You receive the student or parents respectful but a bit distant. You confirm the effort they are taking for having this conversation. Express your concerns about the situation or about the behavior. Ask for attention for the subject by stating the facts in an objective way. Take a good look at the reactions of the student or parents.

Step 2: the story behind the story

First listen to their story about the matter. What are their values, beliefs, interests, motivation? Try to be empathic and receive their story. Try to reach the “real story”. If you succeed, this makes it a shared care. Now you can try to redirect.

Step 3: look for possible actions

Are there any opportunities that your partners see? Let them formulate alternatives and solutions on their own. Now you can see what kind of effort parents or students are willing to make. Corroborate on their efforts and engagement. By reflecting and paraphrasing, you try to let them take a look in the mirror. This will make them aware of the situation. It convinces them to take decisions. In the end, the students and parents have to motivate themselves.

Step 4: fix actions and agreements

You repeat, summarize and help to formulate the actions to be taken. Talk about the advantages and disadvantages and, finally, come to an agreement.

Step 5: plan a follow-up conversation

Pitfalls

  • Don’t moralize or go along at the start of the conversation.
  • Prevent discussions. Make sure the resistance of the student or parents fades away.
  • Don’t present your own solution right away. This causes resistance.

The bad news conversation

Another challenge is to bring bad news to students' parents. This is in every situation a difficult task.

You bring someone bad news when you have to bring an unpleasant message that often can’t be changed anymore. Be aware of strong emotional reactions of your conversation partner.

Some important steps in this kind of conversation:

Step 1: initiate the bad news shortly

A short introduction is often needed to obtain rest and attention. This is needed to tell the bad news without overwhelming the person. For instance: “I have to tell you something inconvenient… It’s hard to tell you, but I have some bad news for you…”

Keep this phase as short as possible.

Step 2: explain the bad news short and directly

Share the blow as quickly as possible. Tell the bad news clearly, without surrendering to the pitfalls (see below). Don’t digress or try to explain too much. There’s time for that later.

Step 3: respond to the emotions that were evoked by the bad news

Bad news brings up emotions and frustrations. Give your conversation partner the time to absorb the message and give him space to react. You do this by reflecting emotions an using silence. Summarize the feelings of the other, so he notices that you sympathize with him. Let the other control the pace of the conversation.

Step 4: explain the bad news if necessary

Start your argumentation when you determine the person has calmed down. Contain yourself to one or two strong arguments. Don’t overwhelm the person with a long list of arguments. Bare in mind that hearing arguments are often a second blow in the face of that person. Try to avoid discussion by listening to the person’s counter arguments. Don’t make any content summaries of their objections.

Step 5: talk about how it goes from there

Considerate if there is any help needed to overcome problems that have come to light because of the bad news. Let the other come with solutions. Offer help or refer him for further processing.

Step 6: make agreements and plan a follow-up conversation

Pitfalls

  • Don’t underestimate the emotional charge of the bad news message.
  • Be aware of the wrong methods:
    • Wait too long or beat around the bush.
    • The bearer lets the other guess the bad news.
    • The bearer makes the message sound better than it actually is.
  • Don’t react substantively on the emotions of the other person. Don’t analyze them.

The setting boundaries conversation

Setting boundaries is also needed when a student shows inappropriate behavior.

For instance: one of your students didn’t hand in his homework for the third time. This has to stop.

A few important steps in this kind of conversation:

Step 1: sketch goal and occasion

You keep the conversation as short as possible after the infringement. Open the conversation by indicating that the other has overstepped a border and that it’s not acceptable.

Step 2: indicate the border

Name the rules and explain where the other has crossed this rule by using an I message. Speak as much as you can in terms of observable behaviors. Be aware of the interpretations and prejudices.

Step 3: let the other react

Let the other person react shortly or ask his opinion and listen.

Step 4: specify the desired improvement

Specify how you want to see the other’s behavior improved in the future.

Step 5: let the other react

let the other react shortly and search for a solution together. Carry on a two-way conversation. It’s important that the other supports the goals. Try to come to concrete, perceptible results.

Step 6: make agreements and plan a follow-up conversation

Close the conversation with an agreement. State again the wanted improvements and the deadline the other has to realize them. Plan a follow-up conversation.

Pitfalls

  • You start a discussion about the infringement itself. The infringement has happend, so it can’t be changed anymore.
  • The proposed improvement in behavior doesn’t make any sense and isn’t achievable.
  • The disruptive behavior is not clearly indicated so that the other feels rejected as a person.
  • You forget to indicate the direction toward you want to see behavior changes.

The conflict resolution conversation

For specific conflict situations you can use the procedure from the “conflict resolution conversation”. Take in mind that a conflict usually happens with more parties.

The important steps in this conversation:

Step 1: introduction

Start the conversation by explaining the purpose: to find a solution to the conflict and restore the cooperation between the students or other parties. To achieve this goal, all parties must listen to each other. Discuss some rules on which you agree with the parties to lead the conversation in the right direction. Motivate everyone to talk in the I-form instead of the you-form.

For instance: “I find it difficult to communicate with you” instead of “No one can reason with you.” Mention the history of the conversation and explain how the conversation will proceed.

Step 2: summary mediator

Summarize the conversation clearly and with multilateral partiality. Avoid passing judgements to personal elements. Try to name just the facts.

Step 3: reaction involved parties

As a mediator you need to be alert. This is the time when most of emotions are showing and you have to stay in control of the conversation. Give both sides the opportunity to formulate the problem from their perspective.

Make sure they listen to each other and that criticism is justified. Ask for specific examples. “What are you trying to make clear? What do you mean exactly?” In this case the involved parties are invited to think and reflect. Apply basic skills such as active listening.

Regularly summarize reactions in your own words and make sure the other party has understood it. Try to bring understanding to the emotions by naming and recognizing them. Do not compromise because of emotional outbursts.

Step 4: appoint and organize causes

You go through all issues together. Check with every problem, whether both parties can agree in the description. Arrange the issues in order of importance. The biggest troublemaker tops the list. Involve the interests of all parties. What interests do the parties have in this conflict? Or more important: what common interests can the parties mention? How can they back together in the classroom with each other without arguing?

Step 5: find and choose solutions

Take a look at the list again. Ask both parties to contribute a possible solution for each issue. Suggestions can then be discussed. Finally, they choose a solution together.

Don’t forget to check if there is enough support for a solution. Is this isn’t the case, highlight once again the common goal: resolving the conflict. A stubborn attitude of a student can change by asking questions like: “What would you do to improve it?”.

Step 6: make an action plan and plan an evaluation.

Put together an action plan. You specify what steps have to be taken, who will do what and when something should happen. You also agree on a date for an evaluation to check whether the solutions work.

Having conversations with students, parents, colleagues. It seems easy. Yet we find that it’s not so easy to apply basic communication skills in these different situations. What do I want to achieve by this conversation? How do I open this conversation? What do I do if I notice that the conversation derails? Each time we are confronted with ourselves and our conversation skills.

I hope these conversation guide and structures serve as a good conversation skills refresher.

Icons by the noun project: “problem” by Gregor Črešnar, “Helping Ideas” by Demetria Rose, “thumbs up” by Chameleon Design, “thunder storm” by Andrejs Kirma, “barrier” by Arthur Shlain, “client” by Gilbert Bages, “taking root” by Robert Bjurshagen.

Lucie Renard

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