Tough conversations with colleagues and subordinates are an unfortunate but necessary aspect of leadership. Sonia Gill, an expert in such talk, explains how to make the best of them
If you’re like some of the school leaders I’ve met, you’ll find difficult conversations tend to come at you from every angle many times a day.

However, teachers and school leaders are not always trained to cope. When I moved from a school to working in a corporate environment, I couldn’t understand why I could easily talk to children about their behaviour and attitude, but struggled to tell a member of staff to arrive on time.

I could easily talk to children about their behaviour and attitude, but struggled to tell a member of staff to arrive on time

The good news is you can learn to be really good at handling difficult conversations, whether they land on you or if they are, essentially, feedback you need to give to someone. You can do this with adults, with regards to their performance and behaviour, just like you naturally do with children.

After years of management training, I can navigate difficult conversations well and with a good degree of success, but it doesn’t mean they are perfect. Any exchange that could have gone better is an experience to learn from and improve on, just as with teaching.

I’ve witnessed a lot of difficult conversations, and there are three common problems I see repeatedly, no matter what the topic.

1. The person doesn’t hear your message
2. It gets emotional
3. No change happens

Here are some basic ideas heads and leaders can start thinking about.

Structure: Make sure your message is heard

When someone doesn’t hear your message, it’s usually because that message is unclear. I know you might feel that you have been crystal clear, but I’ve seen hundreds of school leaders who believe they have a clear message when they do not. In fact, it is the single biggest mistake I see in around 70 per cent of such conversations.

Emotional management: Stop the conversation becoming exhausting

Emotions are exhausting and can derail a successful conversation, and they can occupy too much of our thoughts before and after a conversation. They are, however, an inevitable part of these conversations, so learning how to manage our own and the other person’s emotions is crucial.

Trust: Increase the likelihood of positive subsequent action

When the other person doesn’t take action from the conversation, whether they said all the right things or not, is due to a lack of trust. I’m not talking about the trust that you might have built from knowing someone for a decade, or having grown up with them.

I’m referring to the trust in the interaction itself. Often we inadvertently sabotage trust through our non-verbal communication and this reduce the effectiveness of our conversation.
One of the key shifts for any team, from the senior leadership team, to the middle team or year-group leaders, is that when they understand these three components of successful difficult conversations, they can reflect and analyse the interaction more effectively, because they have a framework and language for them.

Without this knowledge, the analysis of a conversation tends to be less helpful, taking the form of “I said”, “he/she said” or “perhaps if you’d said”, none of which enable you to have more effective conversations.

To draw a parallel, this is like deciding what you can do when you’ve observed a lesson in which you know what was or wasn’t working, and can explain clearly. This is the level teams get to once they understand the mechanisms at work.

Managing difficult conversations successfully can help make great schools by creating positive change, both quickly and kindly.

Conversely, not having these difficult conversations is a barrier to school improvement. Not only does the issue remain unresolved, you may also lose staff members if they get frustrated at school leaders’ unwillingness to have the conversations that are required. Ultimately, the real loss is for the children and the quality of their education.

Sonia Gill is the author of ‘Successful difficult conversations in schools’