Having The Difficult Conversation

Written by Maren Schmidt on November 03, 2016

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February is my traditional fed-up month.

Cold, dampness, snow and not enough sunlight configure into my waking up like a groundhog and thinking, "Enough is enough!"

What appeared as minor annoyances a month earlier–tardiness, absenteeism and negative attitudes in our school community, now took on an immediacy. 

Was it time to intervene?  How to know?  What to do?

Here are the steps I used.  

First, I asked myself, "Does it really matter?"

  • Does it really matter that Stephen is still running around the classroom and can't focus?
  • Does it really matter that Sue is consistently ten minutes late?
  • Does it really matter that Emily's skirts are short?

The second step was to ask:  

  • How does this behavior affect the children?
  • How does this behavior affect the school community?

With these answers I knew when I needed to step up and deal with an issue.

These answers let me know it was time to tell the people involved how their behavior was affecting our children and our school community. 

Next, I'd put the concern into writing.  

I'd write out what the problem was and what I wanted to communicate to the person involved.  

Set up a time to meet.

I'd set up a private meeting to speak with the person involved. If necessary I'd ask an associate to join us to act as a witness, or as support. 

Bring documentation to the meeting.

Whatever verification I had of the behavior, such as activity charts for children, timesheets for employees, or personal observations, I brought to the meeting.

Be honest and helpful

I'd try to be as honest as I could about the situation, as well as offer coaching help.

Sue, I have my observations about your arrival times for the past two months.  Over the last 30 school days you have been ten to 15 minutes late 23 of those days.  

Your being late impacts the children and rest of the school community. 

For the well-being of our school community, it is important that you, as well as everyone on staff, are on time everyday.

What help do you need to assure that you are on time everyday, starting tomorrow?

For your continued employment the change in your behavior needs to be IMS.  

By IMS I mean Immediate, Marked and Sustained. 

By immediate I mean tomorrow.  By marked I mean that it is obvious and documented.  By sustained I mean that we won't have to have this conversation again. 


I'd be ready to listen to an emotional response.  Using techniques such as five-step problem solving and the five whys helped me listen for understanding.  These techniques can help the person own the problem and the solution. 

Offer resources

Depending on the situation, I'd prepare a list of resources available to help the person. These might range from articles, to classes, to other people on staff.


With this process either the person changed their behavior to meet the needs of the organization, or it became obvious to all parties that continued participation in the school community was not an option. 

Yes, it's difficult to have those conversations to help people understand how their behavior is negatively impacting your school community.

Not having the conversation is even harder.

Download Here: Having the Difficult Conversation Worksheet 

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Tags: what leaders do, leadership