How to Turn a Difficult Meeting into a Positive Experience

Angry anger conflict parent meeting
Angry anger conflict parent meeting

As school leaders, we have all been there. We receive an email something like this:

“Dear Dr. Mosbacker, I would like to request a meeting this Tuesday. This meeting is regarding a series of concerning events that have happened with “name.” I am now asking for your involvement because I believe “name’s” actions have created harm by ….. I will be sending details to you prior to this meeting for you to review … I would like to meet before sending a letter to the school board….”

Receiving emails of this sort is never pleasant. The prospect of meeting with a disgruntled and sometimes angry parent is stressful.

The good news is that such meetings can be a positive experience—if handled well. Over the years I have found the following practices to result in positive outcomes more often than not.

Pre-meeting Planning

You set the stage of a successful meeting beginning with your response to an email like the one above and pre-planning how the meeting will be conducted.

  • Pray for wisdom. It sometimes takes the wisdom of Solomon to “cut the baby in half” in making good decisions and formulating wise responses.
  • Do not respond immediately. Take time (several hours to a day but not longer than 24 hours) to respond carefully and non-emotionally to the email.
  • Do not judge the message by the messenger. Sometimes the parent who is upset is unkind–sometimes just plain mean–in how the message is delivered in the heat of the moment. Nevertheless, notwithstanding inappropriate comments and accusations, there may be important truth in what is being said. Read past the emotion and try to discern where the truth lies.
  • Have someone neutral read your response before you send it. I often ask my assistant for her candid reaction to my draft. She offers helpful suggestions for rewording the response to ensure that it is warm and friendly.
  • While being sensitive to the request, reinforce the Matthew 18 principle by encouraging the parent to address the concern directly with the person of concern if he or she has not already done so. Be careful. There is a fine balance to encouraging a biblical protocol and coming across as “putting the parent off” or trying to avoid the situation. You can strongly encourage following Matthew 18 but you may not be able to enforce it without doing more harm than good. Here is an example email in response to a concern and request for a meeting:

"Good evening …. Thank you for the information you provided about …. We certainly want to ensure that ….

I am happy to meet with you but I believe the best first step is for you to meet with … and …. It is important that they hear directly from you regarding … Additionally, they will be able to provide you detailed information on … Once they hear from you and have time to assess the situation they will be in a good position to provide me the important details, background information, and their recommendations so that I might be most helpful in addressing your concerns.

I am copying them on this email so that they will have the information you provided and to expect you to contact them to schedule a meeting. Will that work for you?

Thank you again for sharing your concerns. We are always looking for ways to improve our service to students and parents.

I look forward to following up with you after you have met with …..”

  • Set the meeting date a few days from receipt of the request. Time has a way of cooling hot emotions. It will give you time to conduct background research in preparing for the meeting. This is a courtesy to the parents because you will be better prepared to assist and they will be less emotional.
  • Determine who should join you in the meeting. Depending on the nature of the issue, history with the parent, the volatility of the situation, etc., it may be unwise to meet with the parent alone.
  • Prior to the meeting, brief your staff on how to conduct themselves during the meeting. For example, if the meeting concerns a staff member and I decide to include that staff member in the meeting, I usually advise him or her that saying “less is more.” It is best to listen and learn rather than to explain and defend. They are to be “quick to hear and slow to speak” and during the meeting to “turn the other cheek” as often as necessary. Explaining and defending can come later if warranted.

During the Meeting

There are many things in the setup and conducting of a meeting that contribute to a good outcome: how seating is arranged and where people are seated, how the meeting is started, how it is facilitated, and how it is closed. Here are good practices that increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.

  • To the extent your office and furniture will allow, arrange chairs in a circle to encourage openness and dialogue. Depending on the circumstances and issue at hand, you may need to stay at your desk while others face you and each other in a semi-circle. There is a balance to encouraging an open friendly atmosphere and maintaining respectful professional space.
  • If both parents are in attendance, seat them together. Likewise, seat staff together This way all involved have a “support person” next to him or her. Seating an upset parent next to a defensive employee is uncomfortable for both.
  • Opening the meeting:
    • It goes without saying that you open the meeting with prayer. Not perfunctory prayer but earnest prayer asking for God’s wisdom and grace.
    • Thank the parent for taking the time to share his or her concerns. State what you understand to be the concerns.
    • Emphasize the the purpose of the meeting is to allow the parents to share those concerns and for the staff to listen and learn so that a wise and helpful response can be given.
    • Open the floor to the parents.
    • Facilitating the meeting:
      • Speak sparingly and listen carefully. As Stephen Covey has said, “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Repeat back to the parent what you believe is being communicated. For example, “Mrs. Smith, you are saying that…, is my understanding accurate?” Or, “Mrs. Smith, you are feeling that…, is that right?” This has several advantages: you cannot repeat back unless you have been listening so it keeps you focused, it demonstrates genuine empathy and respect and it helps clarify important information. Repeating back does not mean agreement, it means understanding or a desire to clarify. Do the same with comments from your staff.
      • Be careful with this but appropriate, well-timed humor will help diffuse a tense situation and make everyone feel a bit more at ease. Humor is a natural and effective way to reduce tension, demonstrate humility, and foster empathy–provided it is used appropriately and in the right context. Misused or inappropriate humor can do more harm than good. Well timed and thoughtful humor, on the other hand, can relax a tense situation and put it into perspective. Again, be careful. Humor can be very effective but it can backfire if it is poorly timed or inappropriate. “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” Pro 15:23
      • Allow your staff to speak but intervene for clarity and redirection as necessary. If you sense that an employee is overreacting, not listening, or becoming defensive, intervene. You can say something like, “Mr. Jones, I believe it will be helpful to let Mrs. Smith continue…” or “Mr. Jones, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that…” Although this may feel unpleasant to the employee during the meeting, you are doing him or her a favor by avoiding making a tense situation worse.
      • Take good notes. Parents appreciate the fact that you care enough to note what is being said. It also provides useful information and documentation for later actions and meetings.
      • Closing the meeting:
        • Thank the parents again for coming in and mean it.
        • Summarize what you understand to have been communicated. If corrected, note the correction.
        • Don’t render any decisions at this point. Assure the parents that you will take time to pray about what has been shared, to discuss the situation with the appropriate staff, and to consider the next best course of action.
        • Tell the parents that you will follow-up with them once you have completed your review.
        • Do as you say. Pray, consider, consult, decide, and follow-up. Do so deliberately but not fast; follow-up in a timely thoughtful manner.
        • Communicate with those who may need to be aware of the situation while being careful to protect appropriate confidences. Does the board need a “heads-up”, another staff member, a pastor? Your spouse is not one of those. Do not share confidential information with anyone other than those with a “professional need to know."
        • Make whatever tough decisions are needed. If you have to correct the parents and disappoint them, do so but in a kind, emphatic and respectful manner. If a policy needs changed, change it. If an employee needs corrected or worse, do what is right and in the right way.
        • Follow-up with the parents as promised. Come full-circle and come to closure.

Re-read the above email. Below is the email I received after a meeting with these parents and the appropriate staff:

“Dr. Mosbacker, the careful way in which you conducted the meeting was very encouraging to both of us, and was a very significant step toward bringing reconciliation and healing in our family.”

That is not always the response but more often than not, it is. The meeting was hard; the outcome was positive.

Do you have suggestions for “Turning a Difficult Meeting into a Positive Experience?” If so, share them with our readers by commenting below.