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.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

17 things to remember about apologising

President Cyril Ramaphosa was criticized by a caller on a talk-radio show this week, as ‘being weak’ for apologising for mistakes made in the process of addressing our country’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

I completely disagree. I think it is a sign of strength that a person can apologise (and a rarity from a politician). I think it shows an acknowledgement and empathy for other people ‘s feelings and opinions if you can say you are sorry to someone who has been hurt by your words or actions. And in a leader, that kind of humility is important.

I have a saying with my staff that ‘sometimes only grovel will do.’

Because we mess up – like all people – and much time is saved when the offended party is given that recognition of their hurt or inconvenience.

Here are some tips about apologizing (with a disclaimer that I don’t always get these right either):

1. Believe you have offended. Apologise even if the mistake or slight was unintended.

There is nothing worse than being gaslighted by the very person who has caused you hurt, or upset you. To have one’s offended feelings then denied, adds insult to injury.  The first rule of conflict management is to believe what the other person is saying. It is not for you to judge whether a person is over-reacting either.

2. Relationships matter more than your ego or being right.

A servant leader knows the simple truth that ‘it’s not about me.’ Expressing remorse shows your partner or client that the relationship you have with them is more important than your ego or being right.

When you’ve done something wrong, admit it. No one in history has choked to death from swallowing her pride.’

3. Mean it. Only two year olds are ‘sorry, not sorry.

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We all remember being made to ‘say sorry to your sister!’ and hearing that muttering ‘Sorreeeee!’ which was a clear sign that you were not! We’re grown-ups now though and admitting regret should be sincere and humble.

Recently after a spat between two of my my offspring, that had become particularly personal, had been calmed down, I asked each to say something nice about the other. My daughter told her brother he had nice eyes. His retort: ‘I like your glasses.’

Clearly ‘Not sorry.’

4. Don’t ruin the apology with a ‘but.’

Likewise, saying ‘but’ after an apology is just another version of saying ‘sorry, not sorry.’ See point 2 above.

5. Apologies do not absolve you of responsibility/blame/legal ramifications

Even when a criminal apologises to his victims in court, he is not excused his sentence because he is remorseful. There is still a consequence that he must accept. The same is true when we screw up.  We still need to fix what we broke.

In South Africa, not enough people apologised for Apartheid, despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s noble aims, let alone spent their old age making amends, (or licence plates in prison).

Of course, sometimes you can land up in court for apologising because you may have admitted legal liability, but I really hate it when companies or politicians use all of those euphemisms like ‘it was a regrettable incident (that 100 of their employees died down the mine that they did not ensure was safe, or contracted cancer following their factory’s effluent poisoning the drinking water’ …

Avoiding acceptance of responsibility is cowardly. If you stuffed up, admit it! That’s the honourable thing to do, however unfortunately, honour, like cigarettes during lockdown, is hard to come by when a company is facing financial losses through litigation. Sometimes they apologise but add those little disclaimers such as ‘while the company regrets…. this in no way is an acceptance of liability…’

Large underwear is needed: confess (It’s good for the soul – trust me I’m Catholic so I know), apologise and face the music.

6. Don’t wait

Express remorse immediately when you discover you printed someone ‘s name incorrectly on the awards ceremony programme, or before someone sees the scratch on their car, or when there has been a delay in response time to an issue. Make contact even before the injured party becomes aware of the situation, if possible. That shows you’re sincere and not hiding it. It also tends to take the sting out of the error or insult and can calm down a furious client and gain their respect for being someone who owns her mistakes.

‘When you realise you’ve made a mistake, make amends immediately. It’s easier to eat crow when it’s still warm.’

Dan Heist

7. There is always something to be sorry about in a conflict situation

Even if the angry customer in front of you is dead wrong. There is always something to apologise for such as a miscommunication that has led to the misunderstanding. If you take ownership of even a part of the complaint, the complainant may be slightly mollified at least.

Always acknowledge their feelings as valid.

8. Apologies heal relationships and build trust

Humans are weird about ‘losing face’ and being the first to apologise. In fact, to me, that is the moral high ground and shows a stronger person, confident in herself because true strength requires humility. How many of us know families who no longer speak because siblings or children or parents refuse to be the first person to ‘give in’ as apologising is considered a surrender.

In the end, we all want to feel validated. Likewise, if someone apologises to you, apologise back for your part, enabling both parties to heal and feel forgiven.

9. Take the long view

Be prepared to lose the battle in order to win the war. If your goal is to win over a group of people to co-operate with you, it can be of strategic importance to suck it up and apologise unreservedly in the small things so that they will believe you and respect you in the long term.

10. Apologies take courage

It is not always easy to apologise because it often involves facing the wrath of the offended party, and that is another reason why I say that it is strong leaders who are able to do this. An apology makes one vulnerable in the relationship (or so many think) and so they avoid doing so which is sad because the courage to own up to being flawed is both liberating and empowering.

The first to apologise is the bravest. The first to forgive is the strongest. The first to forget is the happiest.’

11. Don’t respond to anger or annoyance in another with reeling out a list of their own similar crimes

While it may be true that you may have experienced similar treatment at the plaintiff’s hands, now is not the time to say, ‘well you always/never do that either’

(btw ‘always’ and ‘never’ should never feature in arguments.)

‘I am so sorry! I know how annoying this is when it happens to me,’ is a far more conciliatory response and won’t escalate the conflict.

12. Don’t expect forgiveness

Don’t apologise because you want to be forgiven. Apologise because you want to heal the relationship.

13. Apologise to children.

That is how you teach them to be sorry too.

14. Sorry means I won’t do it again

My mother always told me that ‘Sorry means you won’t do it again,’ and while this assumes a path to perfection that is not always possible for horribly flawed humans, it should cause us to pause and determine a way to at the very least try to avoid the behaviour, or in business (and at home) build structures and procedures to prevent a recurrence of the error. Otherwise, you run the risk of being (or being seen to be) once again ‘sorry, not sorry.’

15. Make amends

As much as it is a powerful means of spiritually cleansing oneself, priests who prescribe prayerful penance sometimes let we sinners off the hook a bit. Saying a few ‘’our Fathers’ will not build the bridge again with one’s husband and is not as effective as going home from Confession and baking a cake for your beloved or washing his car. Showing and not just telling is a powerful way to prove repentance, and it takes more effort.

Chocolate and flowers help too:

16. A good leader apologises for the team without shifting the blame to the individual who may have caused the fault.

Not only will this gain you the thanks of your team for having their backs, it is important to remember that as a leader you may not be responsible for the mess, but you are always accountable for it.

17. Apologising is empowering

When you realise that in fact you lose nothing by apologising, there is profound sense of peace and inner strength, which leads to greater resilience.

“Apologies aren’t meant to change the past, they are meant to change the future.”

– Kevin Hancock