Home Leadership Embracing Confrontation: A Protocol for Tough Conversations

Embracing Confrontation: A Protocol for Tough Conversations

by Miguel Guhlin
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“Oh, what a mess!” said a principal friend. “It’s been a tough two years, and giving grace to teachers is so important. But it’s also important to have conversations about tough topics.” One example she shared from a colleague:

“A first-year teacher decided to go off for a week. She didn’t bother to tell me. I went in to do an observation and found a substitute teacher. What the heck? Principals need a protocol for what to do during a crucial confrontation,” she said.

At lunch, she shared a few scenarios that had gone unresolved this past school year on her campus. Those were each missed opportunities to improve a campus situation, and they had profound consequences. So how can we have healthy and constructive tough conversations?

A Protocol for Hard Conversations

Based on my own experiences, here’s what might be considered a “protocol” for handling tough conversations. Of course, I recommend spending a lot more time studying these topics. Be sure to check out my list of books, which includes “Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises. This book taught me the practices I’ll introduce.

Most folks don’t have a clue what they’re getting into when they step into an assistant principal or principal role. People like me didn’t grow up learning the practices, communication tools, and skills needed to succeed in these roles. As such, we lack what’s needed to get the job done and have critical conversations. But there’s no reason why we can’t learn. Conversation and communication tools and strategies are crucial when it comes to situations that involve:

  • Coaching
  • Addressing behaviors or attitudes that do not meet expectations
  • Handling conflict or relational challenges
  • Managing emotionally-charged situations

There are a lot more contexts worthy of note, but these are some I’ve heard of over the last month. Even as a doctoral student in educational leadership, I didn’t get the necessary tools to address such situations. Not one of those fancy books principals passed around offered a protocol for these types of conversations. Even my Human Resources department didn’t have a clue! They only provided a vague process that left me filling in the blanks. Unfortunately, most people who think they know how to deal with confrontations, in fact, don’t.

One approach that works well is from “Crucial Confrontations.” They get all the credit for the information, but I’ve done my best to flesh it out with my own experiences using it. I’ve had the opportunity to fine-tune it through countless interactions. This protocol can save frustration, confusion, miscommunication, and time.

Determine Your Motive

Identify what you really want. You want to put these three wants at the top. They include:

  1. What’s best for the organization?
  2. What’s best for yourself (since you represent the organization as administrator)?
  3. And, of course, what’s best for the other person(s) involved?

Remember that you are acting not out of your own frustration or anger but in the best interest of others. Avoid rushing to judgment. Cultivate a genuine interest in finding out what happened. Get the details of what happened, and then work to resolve things for the betterment of all involved. Use what’s best for the organization as the impetus to shift conversations. What’s best for the organization is best for all in it. If it’s not, then you have a bigger problem. But at least you will know where the problem lies.

Structure the Conversation

Need to confront someone about a problem? First, revisit an expectation you both agreed upon before. Second, share what you have observed and what has been reported to you. Third, explore the gap between the expectation and the observed behavior with a curious frame. Avoid telling yourself a story that the other person is guilty of violating the rules. Instead, avoid assumptions, be open to the facts, and listen.

Based on the other person’s response, take action according to CPR. In short, CPR follows three ideas.

CPR for Conversations

Let’s dig a little deeper into this CPR approach. I love how the authors of “Crucial Confrontations” explained it. The definition has served me well, even as a tool for self-reflection.

  1. C=Content. Deal with an incident by focusing on what happened, then set clear deadlines and expectations. Avoid taking responsibility for what went wrong–unless you were responsible–and enable the other person to set things right. Begin documentation.
  2. P=Pattern. Now that behavior has re-occurred, describe how the pattern of behavior has negative consequences on work and others’ perceptions of the person. Put a description of what is happening in writing, and provide clear direction on how to avoid negative behavior going forward. Continue documenting. If you need more evidence, allow it to accrue and document. If you have put supports or created a plan in collaboration with the employee, document this plan and check-ins.
  3. R=Relationship. If the directive issued previously is ignored, then let the staff member know they have set themselves up to be unreliable and that you no longer trust them to get the work they were hired for done. Put this in writing, describing what has happened, how they have ignored a specific directive, and put them on notice. If they continue with their destructive behavior, they will face consequences. Depending on the documentation you have of their behavior, move to suspension or termination.

Note: The 2nd edition of Crucial Confrontations is titled “Crucial Accountability.” You can find links to both books in the Wakelet at the top of the page.

Once you have gone through the CPR process with staff, there may be no other recourse. What then?

Learn more about Using CPR to Save Relationships via the Crucial Learning blog.

Follow Through on Suspension/Termination

In cases where there is no recourse after someone has worked their way through CPR, they’ve sent a clear message. It doesn’t matter how great they are, even if they are indispensable to the organization. They have damaged the relationship with the organization. This doesn’t mean they won’t be great somewhere else. You have to free them to find where they will fit in best.

Go Crucial – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires;

The Benefits

What are the benefits of taking swift action? You set a new tone for the team. You and the team members whose values align with yours establish new ways of interacting. If you can’t make this transition as a new supervisor, you may not gain the benefits of change. And, as Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Without a working culture, you will fail. Culture is your top priority above all else.

Take advantage of the protocols, and you will benefit from an interdependent team that is self-motivated and focused on ensuring success.


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