Conflict Management in Schools

B-L-A-S-T: 5 Steps to building instead of breaking relationships

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A colleague’s young daughter once told her mother that the principal just sits in her office waiting for trouble. It can feel like that sometimes (except we don’t have to wait…)

In a customer-centric world, it’s hard to negotiate the displeasure of those we intend to serve, especially when they may even be mistaken, wrong, or downright unfair in their complaints.

Albert Barneto is an entrepreneur who started in the restaurant business and makes his money now ‘Creating online tools for entrepreneurs and small business owners to reach, grow, and cultivate their customer base,’ according to his bio. In English, that means he knows how to work with clients and serve them well. We can certainly learn from him in the education space, which more and more needs to become more ‘customer’ focussed.

His manner of addressing customer complaints in the business world (using the acronym BLAST) is effective in dealing with both parent complaints, staff grievances and learner conflicts in schools.

BLAST stands for:

B – elieve

L – isten

A – pologise

S – atisfy

T – hank

1. Believe

When that parent storms into your office, or a staff member cracks up in front of you, or a student brings a complaint to you, it’s never a convenient time and often you don’t necessarily have reason to entertain the matter they raise with you because you may consider it somehow lacking in legitimacy.

And yet, the first thing you must do is believe them. Someone who is angry enough to raise a concern believes there is cause enough, whether they are flat out wrong, or not, and has a right to be there. Other conflict management processes use the LAST concept, but most exclude the ‘B’ which is sad, because it excludes the reason behind why one would do the rest.

People speak about attributes like empathy as ‘soft skills,’ but ensuring you believe the complainant actually leads to the rest. You see if you have enough appreciation for how the other feels, then half the job is done, because they will know you understand them. Believe the emotions: believe the anger; and attempt to see what lies beneath it and then you will see the matter from their point of view.  That’s a strength – no ‘soft’ involved

Back in the day, in an old episode of Suits (before Meghan Markle dropped them for her real prince) Donna, the actual star of that show (because she is redhead-fabulous), tells the IT guy that the ‘key to having empathy is making people feel supported in their feelings, not just trying to solve their problems.’ ‘Platitudes,’ she said, just won’t do. Believing someone involves really seeing them.

2. Listen

And you can’t know and understand them, unless you have truly listened to their story. Often, I know what’s coming in a complaint because someone else may have alerted me already to the problem, but it’s important to hear it from the person who is actually affected. The temptation to form a conclusion before they have aired their views must be overcome if I am to truly listen.

I worked once for a headmaster who took the side of the first person who approached him with a problem, and that became his viewpoint. You can imagine how that lead balloon went down with people with genuine grievances.

Part of listening is waiting out the venting, (sometimes) swearing, and even personal attacks, and not defending or justifying whatever the school is accused of doing/not doing. At this point in the conversation, it is not a good idea to share your own problems, or make excuses. ‘What can I do for you?’ is the only approach to take.

Don’t ever rush such a meeting. In order to get to the heart of the problem (and yes, there is a problem if someone is upset) you have to take time to hear them out. I usually warn parents that I am taking notes so that I can fully understand them; otherwise I face them, make eye contact and generally make sure my body language is not conveying that I am closed to their concerns (no crossed arms). Ask questions (not loaded ones) for clarification; otherwise just let them speak.

One way of really listening is to re-state what you are hearing until the person acknowledges the statement with a ‘yes.’ (after you have listened without interrupting of course.) Sometimes that is all it takes. Sometimes a person just wants you to acknowledge what they are feeling. And you can’t know what that is unless you suspend disbelief in ‘your side’ of whatever is at issue. 

And sometimes when you repeat their opinions to them, you’ll find you got it wrong, because perhaps you haven’t properly heard them. Don’t stop until they agree that you understand. That ‘yes’ is a magic point in the conflict – it is a signal they know have been heard.

3. Apologise

I have a saying with my staff that ‘sometimes only grovel will do.’ Because sometimes things do go wrong, and people are human. We mess up.  Lawyers will caution against apologising in certain circumstances, because that can be an admission of liability, but I must say that a sincere apology goes a long way compared to a refusal to take ownership of the issue. Sometimes an apology is simply an acknowledgement that we didn’t know.

Apologising is another way in which we acknowledge the reality of the other’s experience, even when (and especially when) they may have the facts wrong. I do not want anyone walking away from my school feeling let down.

There are times when that is not enough for some complainants, but at the very least, they can never say that ‘the school did not even apologise.’

I think it is important that we apologise to students when we let them down too. To me, modelling regret teaches young people that they are worthy as human beings to be treated well, and should also encourage them to practise penitence in their own lives.  I have made a point of apologising to my own children when I have been in the wrong, especially when I have lost my %^$# with them (and there have been some choice moments with my beloved offspring, some even justified).

Some outdated thinking has apologising as a particularly loathsome form of losing face. I disagree.  An apology restores dignity to the other, of course, but it does not reduce yours at all, not if you are a person who is genuinely humble.

4. Satisfy

If you have established enough of a rapport with your parents, staff or learners via the first few steps above, the next step, while possibly most difficult, should at least be easy to identify.

‘How would you like to see this resolved?’ or ‘What can we do to fix this?’ are good questions to ask of the disappointed party in front of you. If you have carefully addressed the emotions of the person, they should not be demanding unreasonable public-hanging sort of solutions, and you should be able to generate a way forward together.

If they do insist on something that is not possible, they should be receptive to an alternative solution. If the problem is a systemic one, inviting them onboard to partner with the school in addressing the matter is also a way forward.

With youngsters, as with adults, the solution needs to address the emotion that has been generated as much as it responds to the crisis that caused it. A child upset over a low mark may express anger at an educator, but the underlying emotion of fear of failure for example must also be unpacked so that another critical moment does not occur later on.

Sometimes you can’t solve the problem, but note that this stage of conflict resolution is not called ‘solve.’ It is called ‘satisfy’ so that you can reach a mutually satisfactory resolution, because it may be that the problem is a consequence of an event or law that is beyond your control, or something caused by external forces, or could be an historical event which may even predate your presence in the institution. The way forward should be the focus of this step.

It is important to indicate clearly what you may be unable to fix in order to prevent further conflict down the line when expectations are not met. For example, you cannot allow parent presence in a disciplinary action against an employee or someone else’s child; nor can you expel or fire someone at the mere say-so of an aggrieved parent. Various acts of parliament preclude such actions, as well as information sharing.  You can promise that the matter will be investigated and limited feedback given following the investigation. This is especially important if bullying of any kind is alleged.

Manoeuvring around in this legal space requires a delicate touch because all sorts of rights come into play, but don’t shy away from explaining clearly what you can and can’t do. And then ensure that you follow up regularly so that they do not feel as if the matter has been swept under the carpet. Often when a parent’s complaint results in disciplinary action of some kind, the focus automatically shifts onto the alleged perpetrator and is no longer directed at the alleged victim. Both sides need to be looked after throughout what can be a long process. It can be like walking on eggshells, but one must never forget the original, aggrieved person. Otherwise, you may feel the matter was dealt with, especially when there are extreme outcomes for the accused, but you could end up losing the whistle blower as well because of lack of appropriate feedback.

Sometimes the incident being brought to your attention is in fact not the real issue at all. It may be something deeper or even unconnected. (That’s why you have to listen for what lies at the heart of their disenchantment).

I shall never forget engaging with a learner who was repeatedly late for school and had been giving those on late duty a hard time about this being recorded. In the course of unpacking his fury at the matric learner recording his tardiness, I discovered that there was a special needs child in the home who frequently held up the family departure with unavoidable tantrums. His defiance was a projection of his frustration with his young brother. Not only could we engage in other ways to address the latecoming, we were able to get him the emotional support he needed as a sibling of a child with a disability. And that was actually way more important.

5. Thank

Always end an encounter with annoyed stakeholders by thanking them (in fact when I present this method to staff, I sometimes call it T-BLAST: start and end with thanks. Thank the disgruntled before you do anything. ‘Thanks for coming’ shows you welcome the concern and communicates your openness to consult.)

Thanking the person for raising the issue, even after it is resolved, shows you value their contribution. And you should…. Even if they are dead wrong or really irritating, they have had the confidence in you to come to you, and in these days of Social Media Complaints Departments, that is a mark of faith in you. Thank them for that.

Then ensure you keep your word. That way you will earn their trust again.

And make sure you have a good way to let off your own steam safely. Absorbing other people’s stress can suck the spirit out of you.

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