Courageous Leaders and Difficult Conversations

Courageous Leaders and Difficult Conversations
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After a long winter, spring can be an exciting and energizing time of year; however, for school administrators, it is also the season of difficult conversations, evaluations and staff non-renewals. These tough conversations are often accompanied by high stress and anxiety, which quickly add to the already complex roller coaster ride of school administration.

As a school administrator, I try to put my kid blinders on and always do what is best for kids. This is easy to say, but implementation requires a willingness to have numerous difficult conversations. You must lead with integrity, not popularity. It requires doing what is right, not what is easy. Courageous leaders choose to engage in difficult conversations that improve education for children.

Are kids worth difficult and uncomfortable conversations? I say yes. If you work in education and don’t agree, you probably need to look for another profession. As the late Rita Pierson so powerfully stated in her TED Talk, “Every Child Needs a Champion.” That champion is you.


Take some time to reflect on a few of my favorite difficult conversation quotes. How do they apply to education and children? Do any of them resonate with you?

One difficult conversation is better than a bunch of conversations that avoid the truth.

The worst behavior you are willing to accept determines the level of school excellence. Have the difficult conversation.

What’s worse than a difficult conversation? Avoiding one.

When we avoid difficult conversations, we trade short term discomfort for long term dysfunction.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

Why are some conversations difficult and stressful? According to the authors of Crucial Conversations, tough discussions involve three key components: high stakes, differing views and strong emotions. When consequences, varying opinions and personal feelings are involved, there is great potential for a stressful and difficult conversation.

Whenever we face a difficult conversation, we can do one of three things: avoid the conversation, engage in a failed conversation or have a productive conversation. Ironically, the more crucial the conversation, the less likely it is to go well. Failing conversations quickly provoke the fight-or-flight response and participants rapidly move to silence or violence, neither of which produces a positive result.

To avoid failed conversations, it is helpful to keep the following tips in mind:

  • Be clear about the issue being discussed and make sure you have all of the facts. Seek to understand the behavior that is causing the problem and its impact. During the discussion, articulate the issue in a couple of brief statements. Do not let a lack of focus derail the conversation.
  • Have a clear objective for the conversation. What is it that you hope to accomplish? Begin with the end in mind and know your desired outcomes.
  • Approach the conversation with a growth mindset. Try to listen and learn from the other viewpoint. Be open and seek the truth in the situation. After the conversation, reflect and improve.
  • Control emotions. Avoid letting the conversation become personal. Be aware of body language, tone and expression. Maintain respect and try to protect the dignity of all participants. If the conversation becomes aggressive, end the meeting and reschedule at a later time.
  • If possible, preserve the relationship. Avoid the fight-or-flight response. A relationship built over many years can quickly be torn apart. An ally is much greater than an adversary. Focus on fixing the problem, not making it worse.
  • Be a consistent leader. Hold all staff members, including yourself, accountable to high and uniform standards without showing favoritism. Build a culture of trust and integrity through actions.

Over time, I have found that difficult conversations get easier. With practice, reflection and a growth mindset, stress and anxiety can be reduced as difficult conversations move towards productive conversations.

In the end, our students are worth it. Choose to be a courageous leader and champion. Why? Because kids deserve it. All day. Every day.

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