Sunday, May 17, 2015

Tips for Making Tough Conversations More Comfortable for Everyone

One of the most challenging aspects of teaching is communicating with students' parents and families about difficult situations. Most of us know the basics: establish relationships; start and end positively; be non-judgemental; stick to the facts. 

But when the time comes to actually breaking the bad news, what do we say? 


I hate telling people things they don't want to hear. I avoid it like the plague. Finding the right words to use does not come naturally to me. Early in my career I made several situations worse than they needed to be because I just didn't express myself very well in uncomfortable conversations. Fortunately, opposites attract, and my husband, who works with troubled youth and families, is at his best in uncomfortable conversations. I always wondered how he (and some of my colleagues) were able to say all kinds of things to people without making anyone angry!

I started to notice that there were certain things I heard him say over and over again on the phone when he was talking to youth and parents. It became a bit of a joke between us, but then one day I had to make a particularly difficult phone call. I decided to give one of his phrases a try. The conversation went really well, so I started using them more and more. Oftentimes I noticed that the person I was conversing with would even echo the phrases back to me as the conversation continued. 

Over the years I've started to realize that my husband is not the only person who uses these phrases. I think many people know these things instinctively or pick up on them naturally, so they don't even know how to advise the rest of us. What are these magical phrases?

"Touch base"


At first I felt silly saying this. What does that even mean? Then I tried it. I now use this phrase in almost every conversation I have with parents. It goes something like this:

Hello! I do you have a minute to chat? I just wanted to touch base with you about...
...something your child did.
...something that another child did to your child.
...the amount of time your child is spending in the bathroom.
...what I'm seeing in your child's reading.
...a recurring problem between your child and some other students.

"Heads up!"


"Heads up!" is another phrase people seem to respond well to. This one works very much like "touch base." 

Hey! I'm calling because I want give you a heads up.....
There was an incident today involving your child....
We're having a rough day today....
Your child hasn't brought....
I got a report that...
Your child has some extra homework tonight because....
Your child is having a difficult time...
I found a note your child wrote...
Your child lost their computer privileges today because...

"Keep you posted"


This one is a good one to use at the end of the conversation. "Well, I just wanted to keep you posted. We'll keep working on it. I'll keep you posted!" It's also helpful when it seems like you're calling pretty frequently. "I just want to keep you posted about how things are going with..." I also use it as a request for information. Oftentimes I call parents and find out that there is something pretty significant going on with their family life. In those cases, I ask them to, "keep me posted," and promise that I'll do the same.  This is also when I would use the final phrase I hear my husband say over and over.

"You hang in there! You hear me?"


This is a good conversation closer. It's usually coupled with a request to keep me posted. For some people the "you hear me" part doesn't work well, but telling people to "hang in there" seems to be appreciated. 

Sometimes I use all 4 of these in a single conversation. I know they are well received because people echo them back to me all the time. 
"I really appreciate you touching base with me." 

"Thanks so much for the heads up." 

Thanks for letting me know. Please keep me posted." 

"Thank-you, I will hang in there. We'll get through it. It will all work out the way it's supposed to"

I really hope you found this helpful. Let me know if you try some of these phrases out. They have really helped me through some very challenging conversations!


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