Even the most irate parents often want someone to listen to them more than they want someone to solve their problems. They may live in an environment where they feel no one listens. The structure of their workplace may not allow them to share their feelings, perspectives, or thoughts. And, honestly, many of the most challenging parents have children who probably don’t listen too well to them, either. Therefore, by conveying that we are on their side and trying to see things from their point of view, we can calm parents down and build trust.
It’s important to allow people to let off steam. Heaven knows, everyone feels frustrated at times, and sometimes venting is all it takes to calm down. That is, as long as it is a cathartic moment allowing an ‘exhale’, so to speak. But sometimes the rant continues a little too long, becomes too ugly, or turns into a personal attack. In such cases, I have learned a technique called the “Please Don’t Talk to Me Like That” strategy.
If a parent has pushed my tolerance to the limit or if he or she is being inappropriately personal or rude, I respond by saying “Please don’t talk to me like that. I will never speak to you like that, and would never speak to your child like that, either.” This is not a threat or an order. Nobody likes to be told what to do, especially someone who is already angry. Instead, it is a very reasonable and professional request and a promise to treat the parent and the student with respect.
Another benefit to this strategy is that it doesn’t contain any inflammatory language. I never want to incite an already upset person. Like all communication, the style and approach we use greatly determines the strategic effectiveness. Speak very calmly, slowly, gently, and with confidence. Trying not to interrupt the other person, you may have to if it is becoming too ridiculous. The more heated the other party is, the more deliberately calm you have to be.
When speaking to parents, it is advisable to include the entire staff in your assurances. You can say, “Please don’t talk to me like that. I will never speak to you like that, and I will never speak to your child like that. And no one in this school will ever speak to you or your child like that.” Understand that you can only do this when you have a truly professional faculty who ascribes to the same philosophy. If even one staff member yells or speaks in an unprofessional tone, you would have not kept your commitment and the parent really does have something to be upset about.
If we say things we do not want students to repeat, we must make sure they do not overhear us. I will allow a parent to vent to me, but I will not allow a parent to act inappropriately in front of his or her child. I am happy to meet with parents to discuss problems, but I will not allow parents to model improper behavior toward educators in front of students. Obviously, students can be asked to leave the room for face-to-face conversations. However, if a parent calls you in the evening, you cannot monitor who overhears his or her side of the conversation. Quite often than not, the student is in the room with the parent.
If you feel that the student is listening to the parent speaking inappropriately, you can say to the parent, “I hope that there is no chance that your child can hear this conversation. I would be very disappointed if he or she could hear you talking in this manner to anyone in our school. I would never want your child to get the impression that we can ever talk to someone in our school in that tone of voice, so I hope there is no chance your child can hear you speaking to me this way.” Though this will not always work, in most situations, it will do two things:
- First, it helps the parents understand that it is wrong to allow their children to be privy to the conversations.
- Second, it helps the parents get control of themselves and stop their inappropriate behavior.
The more challenging the parents are, the more their child needs educators to be the voice of reason and to always model the way a person should act. No one likes to deal with hostile parents, but effective educators do it anyway. Working with such parents is an essential part of every staff member’s role as a school leader, administrator, teacher, and as your community’s peek into the world beyond the classroom. In essence, we must BE the changes we wish to see! Remember: Parents sometimes will simply need a listening ear, but “Please don’t talk to me like that!