Conflict Can Lead to Good Outcomes for Parents

Most of what I write about comes from my work in education. As a teacher or coach for a school during some type of change, I have opportunities (more than I like) to have conversations around missed expectations. I have written about this before, but never from the perspective of a parent. I recently had this opportunity and wanted to share.

Picture of man pointin finger

Image from Flicker Creative Commons

How many times have you seen situations where parents with concerns go from silence to violence (I mean verbal)? As I mentioned before, the book Crucial Accountability provides a wealth of research and practical skills for talking with others when an expectation has been violated. To summarize, the book recommends: (1) working on yourself first, (2) creating safety, (3) telling your story, and (3) ending with a question.

My own example comes as a parent during a recent experience at my son’s school. One day we needed someone else to pick up our son. Our friend was let in to the school without signing in. This certainly was a problem. We could make sure this did not happen again. Our problem happened the next day.

When my wife went in the pick up our son, the building administrator stopped her. The administrator was talking to another parent at the time. She began to yell at my wife, tell her that she caused a major problem, accused her of neglect, and share that she needed all parents to help to keep the students safe (implying we were a part of the problem). My wife, who was sick, could not respond. This transaction went on for about 2 minutes, in front of students, parents, and staff.

Work on yourself first
When I met with my wife that evening, she was drafting a response to the administrator. She was upset and felt that she had experienced disrespect. Based on our experience, this was seemingly a common behavior from this leader (we had heard of this happening before to others).

After listing to my wife and letting her make a first draft of the concerns, she asked me to read it to see what I thought. The first draft included adjectives about the director’s behavior. We then talked about why a reasonable person would react this way. We talked about how the director was certainly concerned about student safety, and we could have done a more to make this sure this did not happen. We also talked about the fact that since this leader seemed to use this approach often, she may not have another skill set to use to deal with this kind situation (more can’t do than won’t do). We had to move from thinking of her as the administrator from the Black Lagoon to being a human being.

Create safety
We revised our draft and began by saying we appreciated her concern. We also acknowledged our part in the problem. Next, we stated that we did not think that her intention was to cause harm to anyone. This was an important step in creating safety and we did not want her to assume we thought she had evil intentions.

Tell the story
Next, we just shared what happened. We talked about the confrontation happening in from of other parents, described how we perceived the conversation, and how we felt. We avoided saying she did something wrong and focused on our perception.

End with a question
We ended by saying that if there is a concern in the future, to just let us know, and we will come in to meet with her any time. We also said we were willing to discuss this further.

If you are interested, I have shared the email we sent below.

The response from the administrator was interesting. She immediately emailed my wife and said she was horrified that anyone felt this way as a result of something she had done. She also asked if we could stop by and talk with her. When we did meet, she shared that she was in a hurry that day, was talking with another parent, and did not want to forget about talking with us. She also said she should have used a different approach that would have been more respectful. She ended with, “I am sorry and I learned something  today [about how to work with people]”

I am not sure exactly what she learned, but I know that if we had gone in guns ‘o blazing, we would not have gotten an apology, or more importantly a change in behavior.

I am wondering, what are some ways you have seen parents have crucial conversations with others?

Our email

Hi (Director),

I am writing regarding the conversation we had yesterday related to the incident of picking up (our son) on Tuesday. I wasn’t able to express a few things that I would really like to during the time due to losing my voice to a cold. Therefore, I am sending this e-mail.

I am fully aware that it’s my fault that I did not ask my student who picked up my son to check in at the front desk.  The lady at the front desk as well as my son’s teachers did their job and informed me (in detail) the process of having a 3rd person pick up the kids. I didn’t express the process fully to my friend, therefore she went through without checking in. The teacher kindly reminded me the process again the next day, in case we will need to have another person picking up the child. And I am very sorry for the trouble I caused and letting the teacher worry about our son’s safety.

While I take the full responsibility of this incident, I would really have appreciated if the expression of concern for the kids’ safety had come out differently. The expression of concern seemed to me to be scolding and accusing me of being irresponsible. I appreciate that you were concerned about the incident, and we believe this was not your intention to come across this way. In the future, if you have any concerns with our parenting or participation in the school, we would like to find time to sit and talk with you when we have time to discuss the concerns. Please feel free to share your concerns, which we value, we just ask these be presented in a way that is more of a discussion and with fewer words that seem to be accusations.

You mentioned that you need us (parents/guardians I assumed) to help make this a better place. We know that you have a vision of this school being a place where children and parents feel welcome, and all students and staff are safe. For our part, we believe your vision can be supported by finding ways for us to talk about issues in ways that work for everyone.

Thank you for reading this and let us know if you would like to discuss this further.