Sometimes there are situations that crop up with parents that can get emotional and become challenging to manage. You can’t win them all and sometimes the truth is that you end up getting a bit of a pasting. Handled well, these conversations can create greater trust and understanding between home and school; but dealt with poorly, they can quickly escalate into feelings of resentment, resulting in a state of longer-term vexation.
Until I was a parent myself, I never really understood the protective emotions that kick in when dealing with your own children. At times as parents we can be downright unreasonable when we feel our child has been treated unfairly or is at risk from others; this is normal (if not always endearing) human behaviour. Looking back, I was often too quick to try and justify my own or the school’s position, or to point out that a parent was wrong at a moment when it was counter-productive.
Over the years, I have gone from dreading and occasionally avoiding these conversations to quite enjoying them; I now see them as an opportunity to build a stronger relationship with parents (our greatest advocates often start as our fiercest critics). No one ever taught me how to handle difficult parent meetings. So I learnt the difficult way.
The Leapfrog conversation model (taken from my book, Wholesome Leadership) is one that gives a structure to handling difficult meetings when trying to reach an agreement or resolution – particularly if the other party is aggrieved or emotional about the situation. The purpose of the leapfrog structure is to allow the other person to ‘get everything off their chest’ and then leapfrog to the solutions by avoiding an argument which no one can win. While written originally as a model for handling those particularly irate parent conversations, it is a tool that can easily be adapted for other scenarios and is structured into three stages.
- Make the environment welcoming and as relaxed as possible.
- Welcome the other person warmly to the meeting, breaking the ice through normal introductions. Offer them a drink.
- Invite them to talk first and just listen to what is being said.
- Try to avoid butting in or justifying at this stage. If you do speak, try to use emphatic language of listening, such as ‘I understand that must have made you feel angry’ or ‘Yes, I can see that from your perspective’.
- While listening, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and empathise with that position. Show that you care about their child.
- Be aware of your body language.
- When the other person has finished speaking, invite them to carry on and ask whether there is anything else they want to say.
- At the point where you feel that everything has been said, repeat back what you have heard and check that you have understood it correctly.
- Explain any points that you think are important, but avoid getting into an ongoing justification where things just get repeated back and forth.
- Don’t be afraid to apologise on behalf of the school if this helps to move the conversation on.
- Agree some next steps and ways forward (be careful not to over-promise).
- Agree a timescale and date to review either in a meeting or on the phone.
- Avoid having to have the last word.
- Take time to reflect on the conversation – perhaps talking it through with a colleague.
- Try to analyse what was said and why:
- What can be learned from this issue?
- Are there any processes or practices that could be changed in the future to avoid a similar situation?
- Is there any communication that needs to take place to staff as a result
- do class teachers or other adults need to be informed of what was agreed?
- By analysing the discussion in this way, it can help to avoid looking at the situation through an emotional or defensive lens.
- Don’t take it personally.