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Saturday / March 2

5 Simple Strategies for Managing Conflict with Disgruntled Parents

We have all experienced the discomfort of engaging in or witnessing a heated argument. On any given day, parents come to schools to express concerns over something they perceive to have impacted their children negatively. And the scene may look something like this- a parent walks bristly into the main office, jaw fixed and eyes angry. The staff anticipates what is to come and calls for the principal. The parent, clearly upset, speaks loudly and rapidly with hands flailing. In response, the principal becomes visibly tense, and becomes angry, too. Before long they are talking over each other, and the staff calls for the school security officer. The principal retreats to the office, the security officer escorts the parent out of the school and the office staff shrugs – this could have gone better!

The opportunity to rewrite the script when dealing with disgruntled parents starts with our beliefs about families and our dispositions toward disagreements. There are strategies we can employ that may not only deescalate a conflict but may offer a steppingstone towards building more productive relationships with even our most vocal critics. Offered here are 5 simple strategies to consider when faced with difficult, disgruntled, and downright nasty parents (or anyone else for that matter!)

  1. Leader Know Thyself. Fight or flight is a human response to a stressful or dangerous situation. It is easy for us to get caught up in other people’s emotions, especially when they are directed toward us, but no one can make us respond in a certain way without our agreement. Know your hot buttons and accept that how you react to them is a choice. Since 80% of communication is through body language, it is important that we avoid sending signals that may fan the flames. Find your poker face- be mindful of the signals you are sending without saying a word. Regulate your breathing, soften your jaw and facial expression, and keep your arms at your sides or hold your wrist with one hand. If you feel like you are becoming angry, excuse yourself to use the restroom, this will give you a chance to regroup. Remember the movie Meet the Parents? It may help to create a cue to help you to keep your cool…Muskrat!
  2. Lead with empathy. Find a place to have the crucial conversation that offers safety for both of you. Put aside your need to be heard or defend so you can listen for and understand the root cause of the issue. Imagine yourself as the parent and accept, at least for a moment, that their version of events is completely true. How might you react? The anger is personal to them, so provide time for them to air their grievances. Acknowledge the anxiety that parents may feel when they don’t know something or perceive that expectations are not met, especially if it relates to their child’s health or wellbeing. Look for the story beyond what the parent is saying and how they are presenting themselves. Listen to parents carefully as they share the source of their anger and when appropriate to do so, invite them to share more by asking open ended questions. Avoid sharing your own stories or offering advice. Most importantly, offer an apology if something has gone wrong.
  3. Take action that leads to results. Once the emotions have been expressed, work swiftly to discover what the parent would like to see happen next. Be sure that enough information has been shared to define the problem clearly and come to common ground on potential solutions. Focus on the results of the action steps you will take to resolve the conflict. As they say, under promise and over deliver- this, as well as follow through, is important to rebuilding trust between the parent and the school.
  4. Improve your practice with practice. Create a mind map of the conflict with the parent, analyzing what was said and by whom, how you and the parent reacted, to each other, the body language and especially your own dialogue skills. Identify points in the conversation when things escalated or deescalated and why. Listen to your own words and evaluate them openly and honestly. Use incidents of disagreement and conflict as case studies to examine your behavior as well as the cultural and structural factors at the school that may contribute to disagreements and misunderstandings with families. Develop a plan for how you will improve in these areas in the future.
  5. Build a bridge. Reengage with the disgruntled parent soon after the conflict to discuss progress on the resolution. Don’t let the fear of further conflict make decisions for you- make the call or better yet, try to meet in person. Model healthy two-way communication that will move the relationship forward to a place where problems can be solved with compassion, respect, and understanding. Invite the parent to engage with the school in other ways that might offer them a different view of the school.

Despite our best efforts, our best may not be good enough to turn every disgruntled parent into a happy camper but if we truly want to build strong relationships with families then this must include those who are not our fans. Consider this- when disgruntled parents communicate with the school to share their concerns, they provide you with an opportunity to turn things around.

While we cannot make everyone happy all the time, we can take steps to improve the odds, starting with our role as a leader.

By looking inward, we develop ourselves as authentic leaders and our interactions with the school community will be genuine. If a school community that shares a moral purpose to provide a quality education for its children is the result we desire, then building strong partnerships between school and home is key.

Written by

Dr. Steve Constantino has captivated thousands of teachers, administrators, school board members, and businesspeople from the United States and around the world for over twenty-five years. His keynote presentations and workshops have been featured in local, state, regional, national, and international conferences. Working as a high school principal in 1995, he stumbled across research about the effects of family engagement on student learning and was immediately convinced that this was the missing ingredient in helping all children learn.

Steve’s work quickly gained national prominence, and soon he began traveling the United States, speaking, and working with all types of educators, school board members, and businesses to promote sound practices in family engagement that result in increased academic achievement for all students. His natural gifts as a motivating orator, coupled with his knowledge and practical experience, make him one of the most sought-after speakers in the field of family engagement.

Dr. Margaret Constantino is an Executive Associate Professor in Education Policy, Planning and Leadership and Director of the Executive Ed. D. Programs at the William & Mary School of Education. Her 30-year career in education includes classroom experience as a special educator in elementary, middle, and high school settings. As a school level leader, she led the development and implementation of one of the largest International Baccalaureate Programs in North America. She has served as principal at the elementary and high school levels in both suburban and urban school systems. She also served as director of special education in Cobb County, GA, the nation’s 24th largest school system. Margaret’s teaching and project work crosses doctoral and principal preparation programs, with expertise in innovative leadership, design thinking, action research, special education, equity, and social justice.

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