Difficult Conversations

In Montessori classrooms worldwide, teachers model positive behaviors for children including how to use their words to communicate frustration. It is not unrealistic to see children as young as three talking through their feelings. As adults, if we can model social expectations and have some of our youngest peers follow our lead, we should be able to successfully navigate trying interactions.

Many years ago, I learned to focus on three words that have changed the way I see, enter into, and work through difficult conversations. Whether you are a school owner, administrator, teacher, parent, or simply a social being, the following explanation of a simple mantra will help you learn how to keep your integrity during difficult conversations.

Remember These Three Words

As a teacher and a parent, talking with someone through tough topics is not uncharted territory. As a school owner and administrator, however, conversations take on a new depth, and they occur with more regularity. Hard work and respect helps immensely in maintaining the health and happiness of a school, but not everyone can be happy all the time. Usually, if a parent or teacher is upset, they choose to voice their frustrations with an administrator.

Early on in my career, a wise teacher friend gave me advice for entering into these sorts of conversations. This simple and revolutionary mantra has the power to change the dynamics of dialogue permanently. Ready?  Here they are:

“be brief, be truthful, be kind.”

Read them again. “Be brief, be truthful, be kind.” That’s it. Let the words sink in.

A “How-To” Guide

Let’s take one scenario to walk through with this mantra in mind. With practice, this idea can transfer to any conversation that feels distressing.

Imagine, as an administrator, you have asked for a meeting with the guardian of a child who is showing atypical neurological symptoms. In passing conversations, the guardian doesn’t seem concerned. After lots of observations, time spent with the child, and talks with all the teachers who work with the child, everyone agrees that an outside professional resource would be helpful in determining the next steps.

Talking with a guardian about a sensitive subject is a hard conversation to have, but a vitally important one. In planning for and being a part of the dialog, remember your mantra and stay true to each piece.

The power in these words lies in their simplicity and their genuine goodness. Focusing on each one individually helps to keep it solid in your mind. When you are faced with a tough conversation, you want “be brief, be truthful, be kind,” to be at the forefront of your being, ingrained in your words and actions. Let’s walk through each set.

Be Brief

When faced with a difficult situation, no one wants to be in a conversation for a long time. Even so, as much as no one wants hard conversations to drag on, it often really feels impossible to keep them succinct.   It’s awkward for all sides, and length seems to make it worse. However, have you noticed that if you’re in a situation where people are uneasy, they almost always become uncomfortably lengthy? It’s almost as if our fear of the unpleasant takes over our ability to be purposeful, and we rely on adrenaline to rule our actions.  When we start talking, we can’t seem to stop.

We say the same thing over and over.  We throw in some new words and go back to our key points until it’s painful for everyone involved. No matter how many times you’ve stated your point, you keep restating and restating until no one is really listening to the words anymore, they are just thinking about how bad everyone feels and… (did you see what I was doing there? That was AWFUL.  All you wanted was a resolution, but instead the words just kept rolling and there was no point, no resolve). Ugh. Icky. No one wants that.

Beforehand, think through what you want to say.  Keep it one to three points. State each point and recap once. ONLY repeat if it feels appropriate. And ONLY ONCE.

Listen to their responses. Let them talk and share. Really hear their answers. We’re not asking them to be brief. It will be advantageous to the conversation if they are truthful and kind, but the brief piece is up to us this time around. If we are brief, they will be more likely to follow our lead than be longwinded. Listening is another blog entirely.

Be Truthful

Even when we focused on being brief, nothing was untruthful. Give your truths some thought before you enter into the conversation, as you did with thinking through how to be brief.  If you really value the child, tell their guardian that.

“I really appreciate because of , and I want to see them succeed in , too.”

If you don’t have something positive to say, don’t say anything! If the child is particularly difficult, perhaps their innate behavior isn’t something you want to comment on. More often than not though, there is at least one positive trait you can bring up (usually easily more).

Why be truthful? Obviously because it’s the right thing to do. Perhaps even more importantly, it protects the integrity of the discussion, it lowers the inhibitions from both sides when everyone feels comfortable, and increases the productivity of the conversation.

Be Kind

This last one seems like it could be the simplest of the three, but it is easily forgotten when feelings are strong and everyone is advocating for their (most important) point of view. This, like the other two pieces of the mantra, should be thought about ahead of time. The world needs more kindness in general, and talking through a difficult topic is no exception.

At the very least, focus on your manners. Thank the guardian for speaking with you at the beginning and end of your time together. That simple gesture can go a long way to begin and end your conversation with kindness. Starting with manners sets the dialogue off in a positive way, and hopefully that will transfer to the entire discussion.

Make sure that you choose your words carefully. Try not to make general statements, or assumptions, and realize that you are having this conversation because you care about the well-being of this child. The guardian likely believes that their child is the most important child in the world, and rightly so!  Even most difficult topics can be framed and discussed with kindness at the forefront.

Need An Example?

Here is what it could look like:

“Good afternoon . Thank you for meeting with me; I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to be here today. I wanted the opportunity to visit with you about because I have observed some behaviors that I am curious if you have been seeing, too? I have noticed that . Have you seen that act this way?

I feel that when we see this behavior in , has an effect. Do you see that too?  Do you have experience with other things that help?

teachers have been working with in the classroom on , and we all feel like some input from would help us all to serve better.

Would you consider letting us invite into the classroom to observe and give us some direction on the next steps they would recommend for ?”

Three words. One mantra. Some forethought and maybe even some practices aloud in front of a mirror, and you won’t be disappointed with the results. It can feel overwhelming at first, but it gets easier with practice. You will probably never enthusiastically enter into a difficult conversation, but every conversation builds confidence.

Be brief, be truthful, be kind.  Those three words will allow you to navigate difficult conversations with integrity, poise, and effectiveness.  The change will become evident in all of your conversations, and those who partake in dialogue with you will see a difference, and begin to mirror your conduct. Allow these words to become ingrained in your very being, echo in your mind, and increase your confidence.   Speak only the words that need to be spoken, with truth and kindness, and you will transform even the most difficult of conversations.

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