Focus

Defusing a Conversation That Turns Hostile

COMMUNICATIONS by GEORGIA J. KOSMOSKI


Many school leaders are finding that hostile conversations with adults in school settings have become more commonplace and intense.

These conversations range from annoying situations where peers or subordinates whine and gripe to incidents in which parents or community members loudly harangue school leaders at public meetings to encounters with out-of-control individuals under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Tragedies, such as last year's series of fatal shootings in a half dozen schools, have made us mindful of our precarious position. But what actions should we take to reduce our risk, safeguard our schools and effectively communicate with those who are hostile toward us? Consider the following vignette.

While enjoying coffee recently with my friend Dave, superintendent of a suburban school district, I listened intently as he related an unnerving incident that happened to him a few days earlier. Dave explained that as he was leaving the central-office building, he was confronted by an agitated stranger. A large red-faced man blocked the path to his car in the deserted parking lot and began screaming about the school district's plan to institute a uniform dress policy for students. Dave admitted that with all the violent school-related acts in the news lately, his first reaction was fear.

However, as he recounted the story, it became evident that no serious consequences came from the incident. He handled the encounter well. He calmed the man down, defused the situation and arranged a later meeting where he could control the setting and circumstances.

Identifying Strategies
Dave's story sparked my curiosity. I asked him what techniques he used to defuse this potentially dangerous scenario. After a few thoughtful seconds, he admitted he really wasn't sure. He said he had simply reacted by doing what seemed appropriate.

Dave is not the exception to the rule. Successful school administrators must have excellent verbal and interpersonal skills. Many do. However, like Dave, few are actually cognizant of the practices and strategies they use during stressful conversations.

If administrators could identify and apply strategies that are proven successful when dealing with hostile adults, they would have additional tools to be effective leaders. Rather than just reacting to potentially dangerous confrontations, administrators could become pro-active.

As part of a two-year study to identify effective strategies for coping with hostile conversations, I interviewed more than 130 practicing school administrators. Six strategies emerged as the most commonly used. Amazingly, all of them are actually age-old practices espoused by past generations.

Time-Tested Advice
Successfully dealing with oral confrontations is linked directly to one's ability to apply these long-known strategies to new situations today:

 

  • Forewarned is forearmed. Before you stumble into a hostile encounter, be familiar with accurate and current information about circumstances that may be called into question. Savvy bosses foster a climate where information about potentially volatile situations is shared freely. Encourage district and school staff to report any suspicion of trouble. Praise their candor. Better that you be prepared for 10 hostile conversations that do not materialize than be unprepared for one that does.

     

     

  • Before you stumble into a hostile encounter, be familiar with accurate and current information about circumstances that may be called into question. Savvy bosses foster a climate where information about potentially volatile situations is shared freely. Encourage district and school staff to report any suspicion of trouble. Praise their candor. Better that you be prepared for 10 hostile conversations that do not materialize than be unprepared for one that does.
  • Timing is everything. One of the best techniques for resolving problems is to defer action until all parties are calm and in control. Whenever possible, postpone confrontational conversations until you understand all of the circumstances and until the hostile adult has had time to calm down and rethink his or her position.

     

     

  • It takes two to make a fight. Refuse to be baited. It is unnecessary to verbally attack or retaliate. An individual will find it more difficult to threaten, curse or yell if you choose not to exhibit like behaviors. Usually after an initial onslaught, a furious individual begins to calm down if we do not fuel his or her anger. A calm, controlled demeanor during verbal attacks is a powerful tool.

     

     

  • You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. School leaders who successfully defuse volatile conversations mentally compile a list of positive responses to use during uncomfortable discussions. These statements are designed to express concern, sincerity, reasonableness and empathy. Examples include: "I can understand your concern," "We need to ..." and "How can I help?" Also, expressing regret often has a calming effect. Of course, when someone has been genuinely wronged, we must apologize. Sincere contrition is a strength, not a weakness.

     

     

  • An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Before further incidents occur, develop a plan for seeking help. Prudent administrators are prepared for true emergencies. Volatile conversations can escalate into physical encounters. Hesitation can have devastating consequences. Implement and disseminate widely a clear procedure for notifying authorities and summoning help.

     

     

  • Don't cry over spilt milk. There are times when we must admit we did not handle a hostile conversation well. We could have been more effective in defusing a situation. After the fact, the best we can do is learn from our mistakes, resolve to correct them and move on. Excessive rumination and personal chastisement are unproductive.

     

    Georgia Kosmoski, a former superintendent, is a professor of educational administration at Governors State University, University Park, Ill. 60466, and author of a forthcoming book, Strategies for Conversations With Hostile Adults (Corwin Press). E-mail: gkosmos@aol.com

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