3 Ways to Communicate Better with Parents

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Occasionally you will need to meet face-to-face with the parent of a student you teach. Never is this so they can congratulate you on a job well done (at least not in my experience). Instead, there will probably have been some sort of incident, usually behavioural, that hasn’t been resolved over the phone.

Understandably, this can feel emotionally and politically risky; what if they think you’re a fraud; what if they demand your resignation; or what if they lose their temper?

Here are some ways I’ve since learnt to communicate better in person with parents.

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place”

George Bernard Shaw

1. Make it safe

For honest dialogue to take place, parents must feel comfortable speaking up so they can say anything. Signs that parents do not feel safe are if they have resorted to either silence (avoiding the conversation, criticising you behind your back, use of sarcasm, cruel humour or giving evil looks) or violence (anger and other high emotions). Ask yourself: does this parent believe I respect them? If not, here are two ways you can make the conversation safer:

  • Apologise if you have done something wrong

‘I’m sorry I… __________’ or ‘I apologise for… _________’ etc. Be careful of ‘I’m sorry that you think…’ as this is not a true apology.

  • Use contrasting to make yourself clear

Contrasting is a don’t/do statement. For example, ‘[Don’t] The last thing I want to want to do is… ____________. [Do] I actually think…__________.’

2. Tell the truth

For a productive conversation to take place, all the relevant information needs to be on the table. If you withhold what you want to say, you will make stupid decisions. I used to tell myself that I had to choose between keeping the peace and telling the truth, but over the years I’ve learnt that, had I spoken up, there would have been a better outcome.

3. Have the right motive

Often when faced with strong pressure and high emotion I would lose sight of our goal and instead look for ways to punish, avoid embarrassment, win an argument or keep the peace. Instead I needed to know what I wanted from the conversation and concentrate on that. Ask yourself: What do I really want for myself? What do I really want for others? What do I really want for the relationship? If your goal is shared then you both have a reason for staying civil. Remind yourself that you share more in common than you do in difference. Staying focused on the needs of the parent will help you avoid a useless and heated conversation that doesn’t lead to change. To establish a mutual purpose:

Suspend the belief that your choice is the best and only solution. If you find yourself arguing say, ‘It seems like we’re trying to force our view on each other. I would like to find a solution that satisfies us both.’

Uncover their true purpose. Ask, ‘What is your reasons for wanting that?’ You might find that their strategy is masking a goal which is compatible with yours. Finding something you share, no matter how small, can produce a lot of shared benefit.

Aim for progress. It’s unlikely both of you will get exactly what you want, so rather than aiming for perfection, aim to get a little closer to a shared goal.

Master your emotions. If you can’t control your emotions, matters will only get worse. Fortunately, we have more control over our emotions that one might think. Before we feel an emotion we automatically tell ourselves a story to add meaning to what we’ve just observed. It’s our interpretation of a fact, explaining what we see and hear. What we need to do is change the story we tell. Here’s how:

  • Notice your behaviour. Are you in some form of silence or violence?
  • Get in touch with your feelings. What emotion is causing you to feel this way?
  • Analyse your story. What story are you telling yourself that creates these emotions? Are you actually a victim? Is the other person genuinely a villain? Do you truly find yourself in a helpless situation? There’s a high chance that the answer to all of these is no and they’re about to lead you to an unhealthy action.
  • Go back to the facts. What have you seen or heard to make you tell yourself this story? Could there be another story that makes the other person seem more reasonable?
  • Tell the rest of the story. Openly and honestly discuss the problem instead.

In Summary:

1. Tell the truth

What you have to say is important.

2. Make it safe

Apologise: ‘I’m sorry I…_________’ / ‘I apologise for…________.’

Make yourself clear: ‘The last thing I want to want to do is…______. I actually think…____.’

3. Have the right motive

Listen to what they want: ‘It seems like we’re trying to force our view on each other. I would like to find a solution that satisfies us both.’

Discover their real purpose for wanting it: ‘What’s your reason for wanting that?’

Manage your emotions by sticking to facts and not stories.

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