Difficult conversations

Why is it important to have challenging conversations?

The best educational leaders do not shy away from holding difficult conversations.

“If we are leading for improvement, we are inevitably leading for change and can expect some degree of discomfort, disagreement  or resistance along the way – whether on the level of the individual, or the organization… Open, authentic, truthful dialogue, in an atmosphere of trust and respect, is the key ingredient that makes meaningful change possible. While effective leadership draws on a wide range of capacities, it could be argued that this one is unique in its influence over whether or not we can effect deep and sustainable improvement and, as part of that process, build an organizational culture in which change and improvement are welcomed and embedded in daily practice. In the absence of courageous conversations, we may be able to put a veneer on the status quo, and effect change on the surface, but deep and lasting change will be virtually impossible.” (Engaging in courageous conversation, Ideas into action for school and system leaders, Ontario Leadership Strategy 2013-2014)

On this page:

  • Resources are provided to help you work with middle leaders in understanding the importance of challenging conversations to bring about school improvement and change.
  • A video argues why it is important to confront the facts and hold 'difficult conversations'.
  • A protocol is provided to help you structure these difficult conversations.

When and why should we have difficult conversations?

Watch the following video by Steve Munby who was Director of the National College of Leadership in the UK. He sets the context for having difficult conversations.

Most people do not find it comfortable to have difficult conversations but they are sometimes necessary. These difficult conversations could be about:

  • saying 'No'
  • handling conflict
  • delivering bad news
  • effecting change (and handling resistance to change)

Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matters most is a book from the Harvard Negotiation Project. Click here to access an overview of the book.

The authors have their own consultancy firm, Triad Consulting Group. On their website you can find some very helpful frameworks for planning difficult conversations.

Reflect and discuss as a team

  • When was the last time you had a difficult conversation? What did it feel like? What was the reason and what the impact?
  • When was the last time you avoided a difficult conversation? Why?
  • What are the difficult conversations you need to have in the school?

Protocols for having difficult conversations

Harvard Project Zero use a Ladder of Feedback protocol to help have constructive conversations. Go to Feedback to access the protocol.

Active listening is an essential element of good communication. Active listening techniques are central to conflict resolution. They contain both verbal and non-verbal elements. Active Listening Techniques of Hostage & Crisis Negotiators is a good article setting out the various elements involved in active listening. It provides a useful framework for working with colleagues.

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