Thursday, December 26, 2013

Eight Rules to Effectively Deal with Upset Parents

Mike Nitzel
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan School District #41
Milan, Illinois

Effective educators love to interact with others. We like people or we wouldn't do what we do. And while most of the time our interactions with other people are likely very pleasant, there will be those times when we will need to deal with parents who are upset for one reason or another. While most of us don't like confrontation, especially with parents or guardians who are upset, we should bear in mind that confrontation in and of itself does not need to be a bad thing. Confrontation can help us get to the other side of a problem or an issue. However, what we seek is productive confrontation of issues. Like it or not, it is up to us to make sure that any confrontation becomes productive and seeks to resolve the issue or issues at hand. Here are a few simple rules I try to follow to handle confrontations with upset parents.

1) LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN--Educators are problem-solvers. It's who we are and what we do. But as a result, we often have a tendency to want to jump in and start talking right away in an effort to get to a resolution. Don't. When parents who are angry about this or that want to come in and talk to you, let them get whatever is bothering them off of their chests. Sometimes it's not pleasant, but most of the time the opportunity to just air their grievances without being interrupted, to simply say what they want to say, is the first step to reaching resolution to the issue. Sometimes it's all they need. Everyone who is upset about something needs to know that they are being listened to. Let them know at the beginning of your conversation that you would like to take notes and then take careful notes of what they're saying. You will be able to refer back to them later when it's your turn to talk and you will be able to deal with their issues without interrupting them.   

2) PRACTICE ACTIVE LISTENING--Give your upset parents your full attention. Provide non-verbal cues that let them know you are listening. At an appropriate time, reflectively listen and clarify; say something to the effect of, "What I hear you saying is…. Is that correct?" However, avoid interrupting and attempting to refute what they are saying point for point. You'll get your chance to talk.  This is why you're taking notes. Look back at them when it's your turn to talk.  

3) WATCH YOUR NON-VERBAL CUES--Actions do speak louder than words. You can tell your upset parents all you want that your interested in what they have to say, but if your body language says something different, that's what they will listen to. Be cognizant of your facial expressions. For heaven's sake do NOT roll your eyes, slump in your chair, play with papers or exhale loudly as a result of their comments. Be rational and practice active listening.  

4) DON'T TAKE IT PERSONALLY--Sometimes this is easier said than done but it is so important.  We work with kids. We put our hearts and souls into what we do. We take our work personally.  However, we can't afford to take what others are saying personally, especially when they are angry.  To do so will only escalate conflict. Upset parents can say some unfair and frankly ugly things sometimes. We could react emotionally. Don't. We need to help de-escalate and help get everyone to a rational place where we can all work together to come up with solutions. We can all be emotional. We should expect our parents to be emotional about their kids, especially if they think their kids have been wronged. It shows they care. Meet emotionalism with rationality. You can blow off steam later if you need to. In appropriate ways, of course!  

5) USE COMMON VERNACULAR AND AVOID EDUCATIONAL JARGON--Nothing can escalate a situation more than making people feel that they are being talked down to. It's thoughtless and disrespectful. Get rid of the acronyms and talk to people in ways that they understand. We speak a different language in our work; we use terms like "standards-based grading", "formative assessment" and "RtI". We can't afford to assume that everyone knows what the heck we're talking about. Think about how you feel when you go to the doctor and she uses a bunch of terminology that you don't understand. It's scary and intimidating. Would you rather your doctor tell you that "have a little bump we want to take a closer look at" or "you have a 2 cm lesion that bears further testing and closer scrutiny"? Many of us don't ask questions for fear of looking ignorant, or worse. We shouldn't put anyone in that position if we are seeking resolution to a situation. Resolution begins with an understanding of the variables of the situation and that can only happen if we're all speaking the same language.  

6) PROXIMITY--Used appropriately, this can be your best friend. It's really hard to be angry with someone who's physically close to you. If you feel physically safe in the situation, try not to put a desk between you and the person you're talking to. Sit next to them, making sure not to invade their personal space. My friend Jimmy Casas (I strongly urge you to follow him @casas_jimmy if you're not already) taught me a great technique that I've found to be very effective. If it's appropriate, try to begin your conversation in the main or outer office. Sit down right next to the person and say something to the effect of, "I can see that you're pretty upset. I'm here to help. How can I help get us to the other side of this?" It's pretty difficult for someone to let the expletives fly in front of an office full of people. Once they've begun talking calmly and quietly, that's a good time to move into your office.  

7) PRACTICE CULTURAL COMPETENCY--Understand that not everyone agrees on what is polite or socially acceptable. As our cultural diversity has broadened, so has the definition of "polite" and "acceptable". Don't assume that a person who is not looking directly at you is being impolite. In some cultures, it is rude and disrespectful TO look someone in the eyes. For others, language you might consider rude or disrespectful is just a part of their regular, everyday speech. Be careful of correcting someone who's manner of speaking we might believe to be rude. Be careful of saying things like, "We don't talk like that in this office." Keep your eye on the ball. Remember what you're looking for is a resolution to the issues. We all look at the world through our own lenses, but in situations involving confrontation you will be well-served by practicing a bit of empathy and cultural sensitivity.  

8) FOLLOW UP--I find this to be the most missed opportunity in conflict resolution and in building productive relationships. Once you've reached consensus with your parents on how to deal with an issue and you've had an opportunity to put a plan in place, pick up the phone and call the parents you're working with. Ask them how things are going and if there is anything else you can do. Let them know that you're always there to assist them with issues they have and that you genuinely appreciate their concerns. How many times have we lamented uninvolved parents? Parents who are upset are parents who care. Leverage that. Not only let them know you appreciate them and their concerns, work to find meaningful ways to get them involved in the life of your school. They can become your best allies. It's true. I've seen it and lived it.  

These are just a few simple rules that I have found effective in dealing with angry parents. I'm sure you have more that have worked for you. I would love to hear them! Please feel free to comment on this post and share your ideas. And, as always, thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read this.  I genuinely appreciate it!  

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