Difficult Conversations

Teach students to prepare for and have productive difficult conversations
137 teachers like this strategy

About This Strategy

When faced with a difficult, stressful, or emotional situation, it can be tempting to avoid dealing with it. However, these situations often provide the opportunity to have re-building conversations with peers, colleagues, friends, and family that eventually lead to better conditions for learning, working, and coexisting. This strategy provides a framework, adapted from Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, to teach students how to engage in productive difficult conversations when faced with challenging situations. When students engage in these conversations, they are more likely to feel safe, trusted, and productive in the classroom environment. This strategy also provides tips for teachers and instructional leaders to have productive difficult conversations with colleagues and to cut off unproductive difficult conversations when they encounter them.

Implementation Steps

30 minutes
  1. Begin by engaging students in a discussion of what qualifies as a "difficult conversation."

    • Have students brainstorm scenarios when they might need to have a difficult conversation. Encourage them to think of situations they've encountered at home, with friends, with siblings, at recess, and in the classroom.

    • Ask students to identify why a difficult conversation might be a good way to address some of the scenarios they brainstormed.  

    • Invite students to share if they have tried to have a difficult conversation before. What went well? What didn't go well?

    • Ask students to reflect on what feelings and emotions they usually feel when they try to have a difficult conversation.

  2. For each of the steps below, adapted from the Ohio State University overview of the book "Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most" by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, have students choose one difficult conversation that they want to have - perhaps with a sibling, a friend, or a peer - and practice going through the steps for that example situation.

    • Consider having students role-play each step with a partner. They should do at least 2 rounds for each step, with each partner taking a turn at leading their conversation. In between each round, have students give feedback to their partner.

  3. Teach students about the reflection and preparation steps they should undergo before engaging in a difficult conversation. Consider having students practice preparing for the conversation using a worksheet such as this one or this one.

    • Step 1: Identify the problem and acknowledge different points of view: Before you have a difficult conversation, spend some time privately identifying why the situation is difficult and considering what the other person's perspective might be.

      • How do you see the situation? What happened from your perspective?

      • What assumptions are you making? What stories are you telling yourself about what happened or what the other person's intent was?

      • How do you think the other person perceived the situation?

      • What emotions is this situation making you feel?

      • What is the impact of this situation on you?

      • Why do you think the other person did what they did?

    • Step 2: Be certain this is a conversation that is worth having:

      • What is your purpose or goal in addressing this issue/having this conversation?

      • What will likely happen if you ignore this problem? How will you feel?

      • How is this problem affecting you? How do you think it will affect you to resolve the situation?

  4. Once students have prepared for their difficult conversations, ask students to practice inviting the other person into the conversation.

    • Step 3: Invite the other person to talk with you. Emphasize your interest in getting along and hearing their point of view.

      • Have students script out their invitation to speak. Sometimes the first invitation can feel awkward, so consider giving students some sentence stems such as:

        • I'd like to talk about _________ with you, but first I'd like to get your point of view.

        • I need your help with what just happened. Do you have a few minutes to talk about where you're coming from?

        • I'd like to talk about _________. I think we may have different ideas about _________.

      • Have each student practice/role-play the invitation to speak with their partner. Pause after each round of practice so partners can give one another feedback on their invitations.

  5. Have students practice opening the conversation by expressing the goal of listening.

    • Step 4: Start the conversation by "seeking first to understand." Ask the other person an open-ended question that will get him/her to describe how she sees the situation. Do your very best listening:

      • Listen with empathy.

      • Acknowledge the other person's feelings and point of view.

      • Ask open-ended questions ("Can you say more about that?" "Can you explain what you meant by that?")

      • Paraphrase to see if you got it right (express to the other person, in your own words, your understanding of what they are saying.)

    • For more tips on this step, which can be particularly challenging when emotions are high, see the "Active Listening" strategy.

    • Have students practice role-playing with a partner, asking questions, acknowledging the other person's feelings, and paraphrasing. Pause after each round of practice so partners can give one another feedback on their listening strategies.

  6. Have students practice sharing their own point of view.

    • Step 5: Share your own point of view, your intentions, and your feelings. Use "I" statements. Describe what you believe happened, and how the problem arose, including how you contributed to the problem. Take responsibility for your part.

    • Have students practice role-playing with a partner. Pause after each round of practice so partners can give one another feedback on how well they used "I" statements and took responsibility for their actions as well as objectively described the situation.

  7. Have students practice brainstorming next steps.

    • Step 6: Talk about the future and what can happen differently so you don't end up in the same place. Offer ideas for what you plan to do differently. Ask the person what suggestions they have to resolve the situation. Suggest what you think the other person could do.

    • Have students practice role-playing with a partner. Pause after each round of practice so partners can give one another feedback on how well they tried to move forward collaboratively.

  8. Have students practice wrapping up the conversation.

    • Step 7: Thank the other person for talking with you. Emphasize why you think it was important to resolve this conflict.

    • Have students practice role-playing wrapping up the conversation with a partner.

  9. Continue to give students opportunities to practice preparing for and having difficult conversations.

  10. Once students are comfortable with the steps of a difficult conversation, encourage students to use them when frustrated.

    • The first few times, it might be helpful for you to join two students who are having a difficult conversation. You can listen in and intervene or provide feedback when they get off track.

    • After students have a difficult conversation, give them the opportunity to reflect on what went well and what they can improve for next time.

Difficult Conversations as an Instructional Coach

Cheryl Belknap
BetterLesson Instructional Coach

Instructional Coaching conversations are often difficult because the primary focus, after noticing and acknowledging what went well, is to focus on change. Making change in adult behaviors tends to be difficult. As in any difficult conversation, the coach's mindset needs to be checked, and the primary coaching message crafted, prior to setting up a difficult observation debrief.

A teacher's trust requires ongoing maintenance so that the coach can be effective. Working alongside the teacher, rather than acting in a directive manner, may require a behavioral change in the individual doing the coaching. Whether or not the coach has great ideas of what could be changed in a classroom, it is how that information is conveyed and how much of it is given at one time that ultimately determines whether or not change will occur.

Implementation steps:

  1. Review the steps for a Difficult Conversation listed in the Implementation Steps above.

  2. Practice scripting out a difficult conversation with a colleague. Use the Practice Scenarios resource below.  

  3. Approach any difficult observation debriefs or coaching conversations using the Difficult Conversation steps described above.

Deflecting Toxic Talk Among Colleagues with Responsive Turns

Cheryl Belknap
BetterLesson Instructional Coach

As a school employee, and particularly as a school leader, you help set the tone for the professional (or not so professional) discourse that occurs within the school building. While well-structured difficult conversations as described above can be incredibly helpful in building a strong culture of trust and respect, difficult conversations that are not handled well can create a toxic environment of anger, stress, and frustration. However, the good news is that anyone can use conversational moves to deflect and/or deflate toxic conversations. While school leaders have additional authority to advise staff on what behaviors are not considered acceptable, all staff can play a role in cutting off negative talk in the workplace.

Implementation steps:

  1. When possible, begin by ensuring norms are in place among colleagues. See the "Developing Norms to Support Productive Group Work" strategy in the BetterLesson lab for suggestions on how to develop and uphold group norms.

  2. To deal with toxic conversations, try the strategy of Responsive Turns (Kolb & Williams). (This is only a synopsis of the core ideas of Responsive Turns. For more information, read one of their two books on the topic.)

    • There are four basic moves:

      • Interrupt an encounter to change its momentum.

        • Cut off a negative conversation before it begins: "Oh no, I'm late; I have to go."

      • Name an encounter to make its nature and consequences more obvious.

        • Describe what's going on so everyone can see it: "I just feel if we keep complaining about the kids, we won't ever come up with something useful."

      • Correct an encounter to provide an explanation for what is taking place and to rectify understandings and assumptions.

        • Clarify that a statement is not true: "I think Mr. Smith was opposed to the plan."

      • Divert an encounter to the interaction in a different direction.

        • Move the conversation in a different direction: "Speaking of Tom, when does basketball season start this year?"

  3. Like all new practices, it will take some time to become adept. Some ways you can support you own change:

    • List the places/times when these conversations take place. That will help remind you to prepare your thinking, and to review these four moves.

    • Be mindful of your conversations. Slow down your own listening and response time. It is okay to pause before responding.

    • Write these moves down on a small card, and carry it with you.

    • If four moves feels overwhelming, pick only one or two that you will practice initially, and then keep adding.

    • Reflect on conversations that felt uncomfortable. Did you use any of these moves? If not, don't beat yourself up, just resolve to keep trying.

How to Address Difficult Topics During a Staff Meeting

If a difficult topic comes up in a staff meeting or if an existing difficult topic that is palpable does not come up during the meeting, it is important as an administrator to acknowledge and then provide a productive approach to the "elephant in the room". Consult the Edutopia article linked below for some helpful tips on how to address difficult topics during staff meetings.