March 22, 2023
By Sara Stephenson and Polly Rainey Kronsberg, Ashley Hall School
This article is based on a workshop presented by Stephenson and Kronsberg at the 2023 NAIS Annual Conference. Originally created by Stephenson in 2009, the goal of the workshop is to widen the lens of the conflict situation and ultimately provide a rubric for teachers who are preparing for (or unexpectedly encountering) a highly challenging or emotive conversation with a parent. When developing material for the workshop, Stephenson worked closely with author and clinical psychologist, Dr. Mark McConville. Inspiration for the work has also been found in the no-nonsense and straightforward approach of Drs. Rob Evans and Michael Thompson. While the material has evolved over the past 14 years, the topic continues to be relevant and represents a needed source of professional development for educators.
Engaging with parents in a positive and productive manner is a goal for all educators; so why does it sometimes feel so challenging? As the relationship between each school and its families grows and develops, teachers are on the front line of communication and, on occasion, conflict. While most parents are keen to work in partnership with their child’s school, there are times when a situation becomes difficult and/or emotionally charged. As administrators, we often see that gifted faculty are averse to engaging in hard conversations with parents (and sometimes with other faculty). This aversion is deepened if the parent has initiated the dialogue with a voicemail or email expressing anger, either directly or indirectly. Conflict avoidance is widespread. There is a need for a solid grounding in managing conflict effectively and with emotional intelligence. However, there is a lack of substantive professional development related to this topic.
This work must begin with an open mind and a willingness to see situations without emotions. One of Dr. Mark McConville’s most pointed and valuable statements is a perfect point of reference when beginning this work. He says, “Very few people are actually crazy.” So true and yet so easy to forget when an angry parent has sent a stinging message that feels unreasonable and hurtful. It’s rare to meet any educator who has not felt hurt or misunderstood at the hands of a disgruntled parent. Yet it’s also uncommon for an educator to follow their admission of pain with a matching acknowledgement of the parent’s pain. Teachers are natural givers and are often born empaths. So, a critical question is: Why is it so much easier to see our own pain than theirs?
The answer is usually rooted in the delivery of the critique: it is often jarring and vexatious. In our pain, few of us are quick to see the shared pain of the one who has wounded us. It is a natural human reaction to self-protect and even to gather friends and peers around us as a shield. Most of us have been guilty of the “You won’t believe what this email says! This person must be crazy…” conversations with our colleagues. But don’t forget, very few people are actually crazy. It’s also worth remembering another important truth: Conflict resolution and effective management of difficult conversations is learned behavior. Very few people come by it naturally: ask any preschool teacher whether children are born knowing how to share.
Start with Self-Reflection
One of the most focal points of conflict resolution is the process of self-reflection.
It’s important for us to be honest with ourselves as we look inwards and assess our abilities honestly. Few educators will say that they relish conflict, particularly with parents. It’s vital to own our capacity for feeling defensive or sensitive about our work. It’s reasonable to feel wounded when someone questions our efforts or good intentions; yet it’s important to remember that intention and impact are two different things. We must be able to see that we have a responsibility to anticipate and understand other perspectives, no matter how difficult they may seem.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we often make assumptions based on our natural feelings of self-protection. Anger can be a difficult emotion to move past. A primary skill in engaging a challenging parent is to take ourselves out of the equation; this is difficult, but necessary. If we can remove the personal lens, we are much more able to see what is at the heart of the matter. We are better able to validate the other person. It’s not possible to meet an angry parent head on; we have to think our way through it before engaging.
It’s a fairly regular occurrence to see a news report about a parent who has demonstrated an almost superhuman physical ability to protect their endangered child. These physical surges of strength are fueled by adrenaline and, of course, by protection and love. In these circumstances, it feels reasonable to equate the massive outpouring of strength with the parental desire to protect a child from physical danger. What we must remember is that parents possess a comparable ability to come to their child’s aid in all ways. In almost all cases, a challengingly angry parent is actually a worried, scared, or confused parent. Their anger or lack of engagement is probably directly proportional to their concern.
Just as we make assumptions about others, parents are likely to draw negative conclusions about us. Anger in a parent often masks a fear that we don’t care about their child or that we aren’t open to dialogue. McConville has another relevant point to consider as we open our eyes to what the parent may be feeling. He raises the validity of the crisis in parenting and the universal lack of confidence in the role once a child’s physical needs are met. McConville uses the expression “transference of shame” to explain that parents are often uncertain of their footing and are concerned about whether they are parenting “correctly.” If a parent is unsure or not confident, it can be easier for him or her to transfer that doubt and shame onto another──in this case, the teacher. The transference of shame can indicate a parent’s own internal struggles. Truly examining the roots of a parent’s feelings is a vital piece of conflict resolution. Aim to think about the other person’s perspective as much as your own.
Rubric for Success
The rubric for success in engaging challenging parents can be broken down into four phases:
In our preparation we can consider the following:
Validation makes others feel seen and heard. People want to be understood. We can consider the following:
Connection is a stage of finding common ground and coming together to find a path forward. Connecting dialogue naturally follows validating language. Consider these guidelines:
Reflection is a step sometimes neglected as we move past a conflict. (We may even be keen to forget the whole interaction!) Yet, thinking over the steps and evaluating our own progress is how we grow into our conflict management skills. Consider the following:
There will be times when conversations with parents seem to get derailed or do not go as planned. These are the moments where listening and reflection are crucial. We must think through what happened. Ask:
There will also be times where a resolution is more elusive. These situations are generally rare, but if you do find yourself here, you must work with the support of colleagues and administrators to do what is best for the student and the school community.
Phrases at the Ready
Conflict resolution is a skill that we continue to improve and enhance. Even if you manage conflict weekly or daily, you might find that some skills always work, while other skills are useful only in certain situations. It’s wise to keep your “tool bag” of phrases and statements fresh. Keeping your favorite connecting statements or most successful validation language at the front of your mind makes them quickly accessible if you need them suddenly or without warning. Here are sample phrases to build from:
We hope some of these phrases might find their way onto your desk and may help you to engage with a challenging parent successfully!
Ashley Hall is a private school for girls located in Charleston, SC, enrolling students in kindergarten through grade 12 with a co-educational pre-k program. From its founding in 1909, Ashley Hall has remained faithful to its original mission: To produce educated women who are independent, ethically responsible, and prepared to meet the challenges of society with confidence.