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Successful challenging conversations in school

As school leaders with line management responsibilities sometimes there’s a need to have challenging conversations, including with colleagues and parents. These can be difficult but it’s important for our pupils and school that these are successful.

Difficult conversation relate to something that needs to improve and is likely to upset someone to some degree. Successful difficult conversations create positive change quickly (within 1 to 3 conversations) and kindly.

Three core components for successful challenging conversation: safe space, structure and emotions. If any one of these is missing it results in unclear message, no action or it becomes exhausting.

To open a conversation use the formula: I, issue, the outcome.

For example:

  • I’ve noticed, I’m aware,…
  • Say what the problem is (and have the evidence)
  • Outline what you want to happen

For example:

Low-level difficult conversation
I’ve noticed that you’ve been late four times over the last two weeks and the school needs you to be in your classroom at 08:30 ready for work every day.

Mid-level difficult conversation (performance)
I’ve seen that your literacy lessons are not stretching your most able children. I need you to make sure your literacy plans always show how you will stretch your most able children and for this to happen in lessons.

High-level difficult conversations (conduct)
I feel you can some across as rude to parents at times and I would like you to express yourself in a positive manner throughout the day, especially to parents.

These conversations are worth scripting and running past another colleague before they are delivered. State the positive, not the negative, i.e. I want you to x, rather than stop doing y.

Common errors in this approach include not stating the outcome, giving a solution rather than an outcome (it takes away ownership of the problem from the individual) and getting stuck in the ‘swamp of issues’ (perceptions, querying the evidence, shifting the focus from the issue to a broader conversation, needing to involve others (no, this is the conversation we need to have)).

Leaders need to pick their battles based on how urgent it is, how important an issue it is and the impact if its not addressed.

Why should leaders challenge other through having these difficult conversations? Money is being wasted (typically he equivalent of 1 FTE teacher per year per school), time is being lost to these issues and energy is being drained which could be spent on school improvement. Not addressing the issue leads to anger, frustration, disappointment and impacts on children.

Culture = Behaviour over time

Tools to help leaders to have a successful difficult conversation

When someone can’t see the need for change
Help the member of staff to understand the current future if nothing happens to address the issue (pupil progress suffers, potential capability and loss of job) and the potential future if the issue is addressed (the class makes progress, the teacher feels more confident and happier in their job).

When someone comes to you highly emotional and guns blazing
Diffuse the emotions by acknowledging and validating the emotions. e.g. Parent: I want a word with you! He’s picking on my son again and I’m not having it anymore! You: Picking on your son? I’d be angry about that too; let’s go inside and you can tell me about it.

When somebody isn’t taking on board what you’re saying
When someone isn’t doing something they need to do or don’t hear your message have a repeatable phrase. Say the last thing they say then use your phrase. e.g. I realise time is limited, however, its important to find a way to mark all literacy books to be marked within 24 hours of the lesson. It shows you are listening to them.

When someone believes they are right and are not willing to listen
Ask for evidence, listen more than talk and ask questions rather than present your case. e.g. What makes you think that? What would make this improve? Within these parameters how could we achieve this?

Feel, felt, found
When someone feels aggrieved and not willing to move on in the way you need them to, show you understand how they feel, share how you’ve or others felt in a similar situation and what you found to move things forward. e.g. I understand you feel annoyed because it sounds like I’m criticising you. I felt this way when I used to get feedback about my work. But what I found is that feedback was given to help me improve and by taking it on board I did better and so did my class.


Gill, S (2019) ‘Successful Difficult Conversations in Schools’. John Catt Publication.
Sonia Gill: Twitter – @SoniaG_HeadsUp
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