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Strategies for Handling Difficult Conversations

By Juli Doshan on March 10, 2016 hst Print

When it comes to high school activities, tensions often run high. From the parents who want to help their students succeed in everything they do, to the coach who wants to have his or her best athletes on the court in every game, things frequently get personal, especially with those individuals who enforce the rules. As such, superintendents, principals and athletic directors sometimes have to have tough conversations.

“It just goes hand in hand with the work that we do,” said Alan Greiner, executive director of the Iowa High School Music Association. “There’s always going to be an upset parent, there’s always going to be a staff that’s upset, there’s always going to be teachers or coaches that we work with that are upset with the rules because they can see their individual situations, but they can’t look at it from the bigger perspective we’re approaching it from.

“So there are always going to be difficult conversations that have to be had.”

Steve Timko, executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) said tough conversations are coming more and more as a result of the changing dynamic between administrators and parents.

“We receive close to 200 phone calls a day here at NJSIAA,” Timko said. “We have 434 schools, about 279,000 student-athletes, we’re the eighth-largest association in the country and what we’re finding out more now than ever before is that we’re getting more and more information from parents.

“I think ‘no’ is not part of a parent’s vocabulary anymore. They don’t trust the school or they’ll try to find a way to beat the system, and they’ll call you to see if there’s any way that you can help them beat the system.”

Greiner and Timko utilized their combined years of experience in high school administration last July at the NFHS Annual Summer Meeting in New Orleans to offer some tips for handling these difficult conversations.

“This is just a compilation of past experience, information I’ve gotten from other resources on the Web and research I’ve gotten from talking to other people,” Greiner said. “Much of the information we said was the same, some of it was different. Some of the value was having those two different approaches – it gives people different tools to work with.”

If such a conversation is initiated with a voicemail message, Timko recommended that audience members return phone calls quickly and calmly.

“One of the things I’ve said to all my staff is that you make that tough phone call back to a person as quickly as you can,” Timko said. “When you call a person back quickly, the first thing they say to you is ‘Thank you for getting back to me.’

“With that, you’ve already diffused what could have been a more negative phone call. The longer you take, the more the person is steaming on the other end, wanting to say something about whatever the issue is.”

He suggested they could even try to anticipate the problem and research a solution before calling the person back.

“Let’s face it – you’re only a telephone conversation away from what your next problem will be,” Timko said. “If I know a tough problem is coming up, I might make one or two phone calls to find out more about what my phone call might entail.

“That way, I’ll have as much knowledge as I can going into it.”

Timko also told the audience that if the problem is communicated to him via email, he prefers to respond with a phone call to avoid a misinterpretation of tone and intent.

“I’ve always felt that a face-to-face or telephone conversation is better than something in writing because you can never tell tone or intent in writing,” Timko said. “When you’re talking to somebody, you get a flavor for where the person’s coming from and what they may be like.”

Once the conversation begins, both speakers stressed that the first and most important thing to do is just listen. Timko told the audience to make sure they listen carefully to the questions being posed and make sure they fully understand each question. If not, they should ask the person to repeat their question, always answer the easiest question first and answer all questions in a straightforward and truthful manner.

Greiner and Timko both said administrators shouldn’t be afraid to pause before answering and tell a person, “I don’t know,” then ensure they’ll look into it. Greiner cautioned that if he is pressed for an immediate answer, he will automatically tell the person the answer is no. However, if he is given time to think about it and do some research, the answer changes to “maybe.”

“Listen to what their side of the story is and say that’s something you could either take a look at or have your association take a closer look at it,” Timko said. “As long as some people know that you’re listening to them, the phone call becomes a lot easier.”

Encouraging the crowd to be courageous, Greiner said difficult conversations shouldn’t be shied away from. He urged them to look at the situation from the other person’s perspective with compassion and empathy while maintaining the standards of the association. If the person uses the conversation to merely vent, he suggested asking, “How is it that I can help you?” to try to get them back on track.

If the conversation takes a wrong turn and becomes hostile, both speakers cautioned the audience to remain professional and avoid falling into traps that included the person utilizing sarcasm, unresponsiveness or accusation. Inaccurate statements from the person should also be corrected immediately. Timko said to steer away from returning the sarcasm or using inappropriate humor, as it will only infuriate the person more, while Greiner said to strive to keep the conversation positive, and remember that it takes years to build a good relationship and only moments to tear it down.

Both presenters agreed that mistakes do happen, and recommended that, when they arise, those mistakes should be acknowledged, sincerely apologized for and learned from. Timko also suggested discussing the solution with the person and giving the individual examples of how the problem will be fixed.

In the end, Greiner and Timko said they both felt that honesty, transparency and candor were the best policies when handling difficult conversations.

“There are some things that there’s not a debate about, like disqualifications from an athletic event,” Timko said. “My favorite person that we get phone calls from here is ‘anonymous’ – I hear from that person twice a week.

“I’ll tell them what we can do, what we can’t do and at least when they are finished talking to you, they are not nearly as hostile as they were when the conversation started.”