How to Handle Tough Conversations: Conflict Resolution in the Classroom

How To Handle Tough Conversations Inside The Classroom (and In Your Day-to-Day Life Too)

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A few weeks ago I witnessed a painful interaction between a boss and her employee. A miscommunication to a business partner turned into a full-fledged argument between the two of them – and because I was conveniently parked at the workspace across from them, I had to endure the whole incident. The tension lasted hours, and within this time frame, they continually revisited the miscommunication to make accusations and determine who it was that was ultimately at fault.

I tried moving to another room, but behind glass walls and between hallway passages I remained privy to the point where I almost stood up to have a word with each of them – almost. But fortunately, I’m not here to share the nitty-gritty with you today; rather, I’m here to share some research on conflict resolution in the classroom. This research shaped the way I interpreted the interaction between these two colleagues and also made me realize that the skills I intended to apply to the classroom are truly universal.

Conflict Resolution for Teens: How to Manage Classroom Conflict and Approach Difficult Conversations

I finished a book called “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” a few months ago after receiving it as a recommendation from a friend of mine who works in Human Resources. I read this book with the intention of applying it to the classroom, but after reading it I realized the potential for these strategies to help people approach difficult conversations in the staff room, in online spaces, in politically-charged moments, and beyond. It’s truly a breakthrough book, and I’m thrilled to be taking a moment to revisit these strategies and share them with you today.

The Basics of Conflict Resolution (and What You Might Not Already Know)

If you studied psychology in school or happen to already have an interest in the mechanisms of human communication, you may have come across communication techniques such as mirroring or reflective listening. In teachers college or through years of teaching experience, you may have also acquired a few handy strategies for when behaviors arise in your classroom: having a conversation in the hall, getting down on their level, addressing the class as a whole instead of singling students out – while all of these strategies are fantastic tools that often yield great results, they’re also aimed at placating the conflict instead of identifying the root issue or addressing our inner dialogue.

What we don’t often address is our own failure to perform well when conversations become crucial and emotions run high. Interestingly enough, our conflict resolution is governed by instinct; this suggests that despite our best intentions, we tend to lose sight of what we really want when a conversation turns sour. Crucial Conversations explains that “when under attack, our heart can take a similarly sudden and unconscious turn.  When faced with pressure and strong opinions, we often stop worrying about the goal of adding to the pool of meaning and start looking for ways to win, punish, or keep the peace” (38). The authors elaborate that competition is rooted in our biology and psychology – a competitive spirit is prized in Western civilizations; additionally, the interpretation of a threat may prompt our fight or flight response, causing us to either dominate the conversation or completely shut down. All of these are huge dialogue killers.

Conflict Management for Kids: How to Handle Tough Conversations and Classroom Conflict

Strategies for Classroom Conflict Management

While biological systems and societal constructs may play a part in perpetuating conflict, we thankfully have tools that can keep them in check and keep us aligned with our goals. Here are some strategies that can apply to your classroom conflict resolution and classroom management techniques:

  • Establish Safety: As a figure of authority, you’ve probably experienced students shut down during a crucial conversation. You might have even done this yourself during a conflict in your past or present that involved a superior. On the flip side of this scenario is the defiant student who becomes hostile in the face of conflict – or maybe you interpret anger as valid grounds to become defensive as well. All of these situations can be avoided by creating safe conditions to openly converse: “the problem is not the content of your message, but the condition of the conversation,” the text explains, “if you don’t feel safe, you can’t take any feedback” (55). In order to create safety, the authors recommend figuratively removing yourself from the conversation in order to take a few mental notes: Are there any signs of students feeling threatened or shutting down? What is it that you really want from this conversation, and how would you act in order to achieve that? What is your student’s goal, and how can you show them that you care about it?
  • Always Rely on Dialogue: Once you’ve prioritized safety, it’s time to step back into the conversation in order to clarify your intentions. Crucial Conversations recommends a technique called contrasting which involves clarifying what it is that you don’t want, and contrasting it with what you do want. For example, you could explain to your student that you don’t want them to think that you are angry, but that you do want them to know that you truly care about their performance in class. Be sure to be direct instead of sugar-coating your message or coming off too strong; the authors recommend wording a message that comes across somewhere in the middle – what they call the “Goldilocks approach.” On a final note, it is important to consider dominating the conversation and forcing your views as a form of violence – this is a verbal strategy to control the conversation, and it has no place in many modern education policies and frameworks. 
  • Follow Up and Change Your Path if Needed: Build a follow-up expectation into every crucial conversation you have with a student. It can be helpful to write down the details of the conversation for accountability purposes; that way, you can follow up effectively and with clarity. The text also suggests being attentive to the outcomes of the follow-up conversation – if issues persist, instead of nagging at the original conflict, focus on changing your path: ” “If a person is late for meetings and agrees to do better, the next conversation should not be about tardiness.  It should be about his or her failure to keep a commitment.  This is a bigger issue.  It’s now about trust and respect” (201). The same can be said for defiance or insubordination: “show zero tolerance for insubordination.  Speak up immediately, but respectfully.  Change topics from the issue at hand to how the person is currently acting.  Catch the escalating disrespect before it turns into abuse and insubordination” (204). 
Resolving conflict in schools: how to handle difficult classroom and staffroom conversations and establish safe boundaries

Strategies for Conflict Resolution with Colleagues and Staff

Sometimes our classroom behaviors get under our skin; other times, the gossip within the staff room or resentment towards school leadership really grinds our gears. While many of the communication strategies we use with our students can also be used with our colleagues, here are a few specific techniques that really speak to conflict resolution on a professional level:

  • Avoid Stories: When we respond to conflict, we often believe we are responding to the situation at hand. If we’re self-aware, we might even assume we are responding to the emotions that arise from the situation. But what these assumptions miss is an important piece of the puzzle – the story. Before we react, and even before we feel, we tell ourselves a story about the sensory information we take in. When we have the story right, we can move in a healthy direction. But when we have the story wrong, we can often excuse inappropriate behavior or misinterpret the conflict at hand. To foster healthy conflict resolution, begin to differentiate between the situation at hand and the story you hold about it. Start to shift your focus to dialogue in order to replace your story with a more concrete understanding of the workplace conflict.
  • Stick to the Facts: If you rely on your story, you never receive the facts. As the authors of Crucial Conversations share: “facts provide a safe beginning.  By their very nature, facts aren’t controversial” (138). Opening the conversation with an objective observation or known fact establishes common ground.
  • Grow the “Pool of Meaning: Once a common ground has been established, it can then be fruitful to communicate about motivations and goals. Communicating your intended path through contrasting and showing interest in your colleagues’ goals will establish safe boundaries to communicate within. With safe boundaries, there is no need to be faced with the dilemma of choosing between personal safety and honest communication; with safe boundaries, you can speak candidly and continue to contribute to the “pool of meaning” and come to a better understanding of the situation at hand. Maintain safety by searching for signs of masking, avoiding, or withdrawing, and restore trust when these elements arise.
Strategies for Classroom Conflict Management and Communication Techniques for Teachers

A Few Last Notes for Day-to-Day Life

There are a few strategies I’d like to end with to help you through all of life’s challenges. The first is to resort to seeking a mutual purpose whenever conflict arises. The second is to not only communicate your motives but remain true to them – whenever the energy shifts, figuratively step out of the conversation to reassess if your motives have also shifted with it. And finally, consider resorting to what Crucial Conversations refers to as “leading with the heart” – avoid labels or attacks, and instead ask yourself the following question: “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?

Circling back to the incident I shared with you at the beginning of this blog post, you might now see the situation for what it truly was: two people who lost sight of their goals and prioritized winning over safety or mutual purpose. Ultimately, I hope this blog post helps you to tackle the tough conversations with kids, and to recognize how effective clear, safe, and constructive communication can be.

If you’re interested in learning more about “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High,” follow the link below to read more about this breakthrough book:

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High