13 tips for managing difficult conversations, whatever the topic, from Mark Anderson.

Whether you’re a teacher, middle or senior leader, difficult conversations are unfortunately part of the territory in which we work. Whether it’s engaging with an unruly pupil, a discussion about a parental complaint or a potential capability issue, the conversations need to be had. But how do you go about getting a successful outcome?

13 tips for managing difficult conversations

1. Define the purpose of the conversation

Be clear why you feel the conversation is necessary and write down the ideal outcome you’d like to achieve.

2. Consider what the other person might be thinking

Do they know that there is a problem? Do they know why you are asking for the conversation? What might be an ideal outcome from their perspective?

3. Do you have an emotional attachment?

If the issue is about you, perhaps consider how to make your position neutral and non-inflammatory. Think about whether a neutral third party is required to help mediate.

4. Positive outcomes

Be clear what positive outcomes you’d like from the conversation. Write them down if that helps.

5. Make the conversation timely

Leaving the conversation for a long time doesn’t help either party. Hold it as soon as possible so that key facts are still fresh, and the other party isn’t left wondering or worrying or even considering there isn’t an issue.

6. Praise in public, criticise in private

If the conversation is worth having then do so properly, not in front of others. You still need to work with the child, parent or colleague, so do so in a way which doesn’t make them lose face.

7. Deliver bad news in person

If the topic is worthy of a conversation, then have one face-to-face. Don’t email or message and don’t do it in the corridor.

8. Give time and space

Make sure you give the other person plenty of time and space to think, speak and reflect. If you don’t have sufficient time to have the conversation, find a space in your schedule when you do.

9. Ask and listen

Gather information, ask questions, and listen to their perspectives. Do not interrupt. Acknowledge what they share. Show emotional intelligence through your listening skills and body language.

10. Don’t mirror

If another person becomes upset, angry or raises their voice, it can be easy to mirror that – but don’t. Remain calm. Breathe. Show your integrity and dignity.

11. Get the outcome you need

Don’t rush the conversation. Ensure you go through all the relevant points you need to cover. Ensure outcomes are discussed, agreed and confirmed. Follow up with an email if you feel it necessary to have that written record.

12. Unconditional positive regard

People are people and deserve respect, regardless of any mistakes or problems they may be encountering. Show your character by showing others respect.

13. Wrap it up

Try to ensure that the emotionally positive outcome you desired is what you all experience at the end of the conversation.

Hopefully, these pointers will come in handy for your next difficult conversation – whether with a colleague, parent or pupil. In all cases, taking the time to consider what you want the outcome of the conversation to be and how you can best approach this respectfully with the other party is key to success.


  • Mark Anderson

    Mark is a global speaker, EdTech expert, trainer, blogger, author and key note speaker, known as the ICT Evangelist. He has over 20 years of experience in the classroom. Mark is the head of education at NetSupport, an Independent Thinking associate, an MIE Expert and fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching. His latest book can be found at edtechplaybook.com.
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