4 Ways to Approach Difficult Conversations & Build Trust by Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.
Do you tense up or lose sleep when you know that you need to face up to a difficult conversation with one of the teachers or employees that you supervise? Entire courses of study are provided on how to participate in difficult conversations. I’ve personally benefited from such courses, as well as from mentoring by those who know how to turn those potentially stressful meetings into opportunities to build a deeper level of trust between myself and those I supervise.
The greatest council I can provide to someone who struggles with entering into difficult conversations, is to prepare. Never go into a difficult conversation cold. Before entering into the conversation, know what your approach will be and know what possible and reasonably expected outcomes may occur as a result of the conversation. Not all difficult conversations look the same. There are at least four types of conversations that can, and should be, intentionally planned and consistently implemented to turn difficult conversations into moments of trust building:
Reflective Conversations that are non-judgmental and simply provide an opportunity for your faculty or staff member to provide input on whatever the issues may be.
Facilitative Conversations that are data-centered; considering together with the faculty or staff member what we should conclude from the data we have regarding any given issue.
Coaching Conversations where we come along-side the faculty or staff member and help them come to conclusions and discover their own answers to issues. And…
Directive Conversations where we as leaders at times need to set very clear and firm expectations and/or consequences.
Clear communication is a powerful means of developing trust, and this is especially true for the school leader in their relationship to their faculty and staff. Perhaps the most valuable truth in this area that I’ve learned within school administration, and that I encourage other school leaders to embrace, is to not shy away from dealing with difficult conversations. School leadership experts Gunther, McGowan and Donegan agree:
The real challenge to those who would bring rational, transparent communication to the schoolhouse lies in discussing the “non-discussables:” in educators having the honesty, clarity, and directness to confront inflammatory issues such as equity of workload, teacher evaluation, the underperforming educator, racism, and compensation. Addressing these endemic, frequently debilitating, corrosive, and crucial school matters is not only a matter of developing skill, timing, and ingenuity. Really good school communicating will never prevail until we educators muster qualities that too often lie dormant within us: decency and, above all, courage.
I would add to their observation that we must also always seek feedback on our conversations and school communications. Reflecting, evaluating, and measuring whenever possible, the effectiveness of those difficult conversations will help to improve and enhance future conversations – which are part and parcel of leading a school and becoming a trusted school leader.
©2016 Toby A. Travis
 Gunther, Vicki; McGowan, James; Donegan, Kate. Strategic Communications for School Leaders (Kindle Locations 53-55). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.