Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Challenging Conversations - more

As a leader, what principles guide your thinking when you face challenging conversations? 

Engaging in Challenging Conversations....

Most challenging conversations are in fact negotiations.  We are negotiating the terms of a relationship, how it will unfold, and which expectations each party brings to the relationship.  We are also often negotiating about who gets what or who will do what in the future.  Following are the key principles that inform a safe process for having challenging conversations:

  • solution focused, not blame focused
  • problem focused, not people focused
  • nonadversarial approach, not adversarial approach
  • dialogue, not diatribe - inclusive, not exclusive
  • interest and needs focused, not position focused
  • win-win orientation, not win-lose orientation
From:  The Principal as Leader of Challenging Conversations (Leading Student Achievement Series)
Published by: Corwin Press, OPC - The Ontario Principals' Council


  1. I really like the focus on solutions, problem-resolving and win-win. The idea that we enter into conversations with positive presuppositions about what we can do together in partnership is critical to our success in building relationships and managing change. We can address any issue if we consider it as the "third point" in the conversation (Bruce Wellman); this removes the "personal" defensiveness or position focused situation.

  2. Theresa - it is true that we should enter problem-resolving situations with a positive attitude of win-win. In doing so, the challenging conversation begins as a partnership in discussion and can result in far less confrontation. Prior to engaging in the challenging conversation, it is helpful to first create an affirmation to de-escalate your anxiety and focus on your desired outcome.


  3. Just to add an additional thought....the whole idea of focusing on the problem and not the person is helpful. If we approach challenging conversations from the perspective of the issue is the thing that needs to addressed.....not the 'other person' can allow us to see a potential adversary as someone who also wants a resolution to an issue - and not as the problem. I can shift the 'challenge' away from the person and over to the issue. This changes how I see the challenge in the conversation.

  4. The key principles are based on the premise that there are two people involved in the discussion and that there will be a resolution. I especially like the principle of "problem focused, not people focused" which allows for a conversation focused on a mutually agreeable solution. So often difficult conversations invoke initial defensiveness--a good leader will move the discussion beyond that level and attempt to focus on the problem at hand.

  5. I agree with the comments that have already been posted. I think our perceptions of these difficult conversations is very important. What was particularly meaningful to me is to be solution focused instead of problem focused. Focusing on solving a problem rather than describing it can help you to have a disposition that will help you to be effective in dealing with these tough situations.

  6. elizabeth lue-kim29 April 2011 at 07:09

    I thought this posting was particularly relevant, as I have recently attended a solution focused counseling workshop through our board. I found it to be very inspiring and I was trying to implement the suggestions and strategies as soon as I returned to my school. A few of the highlights that resonated with me were to remember that conversations involve taking turns, listening to one another and developing a rapport. One form of questioning is the future oriented questions. In this form of questioning you help the individual visualize what life will look like when the problem is solved or when the situation has improved. Trying to replace “why” questions with “how “ questions and remembering the acronym FROG -Forever Recognizing Others (or Our Own) Greatness.

  7. Heather, I agree with your comment that "...a good leader attempts to focus on the problem at hand". It is so important that the focus of a challenging conversation remain on the problem so that personal attacks are not made. When a challenging conversation becomes personal there is an immediate shift in the priorites and it soon becomes driven by emotions.

  8. Dane Prince said, "our perceptions of these difficult conversations is very important." Our atttiudes and goals going in to a poten tially challenging situation will inform both our behaviour and reactions to whatever transpires. A person going in looking for a fight will undoubtedly find one. a person looking for a solution will be more likely to be consilliatory, rational, and calm. This will preserve the relationship for another day...

  9. Julia De Rose1 May 2011 at 17:09

    "preserving the relationship for another day..." This is a key component of being an administrator. Burning bridges with staff is simply not an option if you want to create the an atmosphere of high expectations and professionalism. Challenging conversations cannot be avoided...whether it be due to a TPA, a parent complaint or a disagreement over a teaching assignment, they do happen. The key is to 'begin with the end in mind" (Stephen Covey). Sometimes I don't always have the words to start these conversations but I remind myself to begin with the end in mind and to speak from my heart and usually, all goes well. My goal is to always close the conversation in a positive way so when I see that person again, there are few if no hard feelings.

  10. Julia, your comments about beginning with the end in mind, speaking from the heart, and being positive are great mind-sets for such conversations. I would like to add that I think such conversations require skill sets as well. For those who have taken coaching courses, the skills of rapport, attentive listening, paraphrasing, etc. are essential to ensuring a conversation can address challenging topics in a non-confrontational way that is focused on gaining resolution while maintaining positive presuppositions about others and ensuring everyone's integrity is intact. Mindsets + skill sets = more effective conversations.

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