Six Lessons from Other Sectors on Communicating with Parents

School principals have recently reported an increase in the number of parents complaining about and to the school. But what is the best way to deal with such tensions?

In addition to the obvious impact on staff and parents, recent Teacher Tapp research commissioned by ASCL found that almost a third (32%) of school leaders had experienced pupils being kept home due to disputes with the school.

We really are in a new and difficult situation where relationships and communication seem to be breaking down. And if that affects turnout, that affects young people’s life chances.

There is no magic wand. However, to strengthen our efforts to establish good, healthy relationships with our parenting communities, here are six tips from different sectors that offer practical ways to approach the problem.

Listen to understand, not judge

How we handle high-stakes communication really matters. When emotions run high, it’s all too easy to be quick to pass judgment instead of staying curious. But by withholding judgment and asking great questions (and listening carefully to the answers), we can unlock a whole range of drivers of the behavior we see.

Palliative care physicians, crisis communicators, and hostage negotiators are trained to de-escalate situations. The approach they take is to ask great questions like:

  • Can you tell me your understanding of what happened to bring us to this point?
  • What is important to you about this?
  • How can I help make things better for us?
  • How do you want to feel at the end of this meeting?
  • How should I proceed?
  • What led us to this situation?
  • How can we fix this problem?
  • What is the goal? / What are we trying to achieve here?
  • How do I do that?

Listening to the answers over and over, repeating what we heard and asking if we understood correctly is a great way to start a common understanding. If they say “no, that’s not right,” we have a chance to ask further questions. We will never find a solution when we are in disagreement.

“No” can be a beginning, not just an end

Sometimes we suggest something to a parent and their answer is “no.” This can immediately create a flashpoint. But figuring out what “no” means is a more practical approach.

According to Chris Voss (former FBI agent), “no” can mean:

  • I’m not ready to agree yet.
  • You make me feel uncomfortable.
  • I don’t understand.
  • I want something different.
  • I need more information.
  • I want to discuss this with someone else.

We can start by figuring out what’s behind the “no” answer by asking ourselves questions like, “What would have to happen for you to say yes?” or “What would have to change for you to hear yes?”

Green Scripts and Blue Scripts

Alfred Hitchcock wrote two scripts for Birdsone green and one blue. The blue script was for the standard dialogue and direction of the scenes; the green was for how he wanted people to feel during those scenes.

This is a useful way to think about how we communicate with parents. We can present the facts in our introduction pack, for example, but how will it make them feel? We need to think not only about what we are telling them, but just as importantly, how it will affect them.

Thinking ahead about how to make the grievance meeting feel like a space for problem-solving rather than blaming and judging is crucial to the psychological safety of all participants.

So don’t go into those meetings with a blue script full of hard facts. Remember your green script that allows people to disagree and work through their emotions toward a solution.

The language of authority

Many of the little things we do can be “signals” that we are not talking to our parents like the adults they are. For example, introducing myself as “Mrs. Johnson” but referring to my parent as “Mom” or “Dad” is taking on a position of authority over them. This can be not only deeply impersonal, but also disrespectful.

A better way would be to say, “I’m Mrs. Johnson, how would you like me to address you?” It sounds like a small thing, but ask any group of parents if they want to be defined solely by that role and it will open up some interesting discussions.

Change experts agree: Dominating others rarely gets the conversation back on track.

Avoid difficult conversations

Susan Scott works in leadership development at some of the world’s largest companies. Her advice: Don’t call them “difficult conversations.” Instead, call them important or critical conversations. They may not be that difficult, and calling them that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Scott’s model is as follows:

  • Choose a specific example of the problem you want to solve
  • Describe your emotions related to this problem
  • Explain what is at stake
  • Identify your part in the problem (“I didn’t call you sooner,” “I didn’t make myself clear enough,” or even “I missed something”).
  • Indicate your willingness to solve the problem
  • Invite a person to respond

Communicate your values ​​at every opportunity

Good relationships start long before a fracture occurs. But when it does, crisis communications expert Amanda Coleman makes it clear that during and after a fracture, we should do everything we can to build bridges.

The way we communicate builds trust and confidence; we must seize every opportunity to live the values ​​that are painted on our letters and signs. Collaboration, empathy, and opportunities for all apply to parenting relationships as much as they do to students.

In a polarized world where people are prone to blaming, defending and attacking, we must take the time to find long-term, sustainable solutions.

This doesn’t mean we don’t have high standards, high expectations, and non-negotiable rules, but we need to see the person behind the complaint, the problem behind the symptoms, and the solution behind the tension.

We can do both.