Navigating emotionally-loaded conversations during the current difficult times

Kathryn Morgan and I led a Teacher Development Trust #CPDConnectUp session on this subject, using Zoom and ably hosted by David Weston, on Monday 2nd May 2020.  The rationale behind the session was our recognition that, in these challenging times, educators are facing increasing numbers of demanding conversations which are emotionally-fuelled.  These may be conversations with students, with colleagues (including with those you lead, and those who lead you), with parents and carers, and perhaps with governors, and they will cover a wide range of subjects.  These exchanges are emotionally-loaded because we may be experiencing intense emotions, including fear, grief, anger, stress, frustration and disappointment, and those to whom we are speaking may well be going through the same gamut of strong feelings.  How do we cope with this so that these conversations move us forward and enable us to find positive outcomes as we address a whole range of challenging issues in the current climate?

During the time when I was thinking about how we might structure the session, I read these words from Anna Robinson, the Mental Health and Well-Being Lead for the Birmingham Education Partnership.  In a letter sent to the heads of the schools she works with, Anna said:

“Where do we begin to understand what is needed in the rehabilitation phase where we come back together to say hello again?  Where do we begin in supporting our collective recovery?”

This resonated, because we are talking about recovery – about how we can navigate these rough seas and emerge even stronger, with relationships which are mutually respectful and supportive, as educators and families pull together in the interests of the young people we provide for and care for.  How can we ensure that we emerge safely, mentally as well as physically healthy and resilient?

Kathryn and I discussed what we hoped to cover in the TDT session, and decided that there were a number of points we wanted to focus on:

  • The importance of creating the time and space to think, so that our response to difficult issues is considered and measured rather than reactive and knee-jerk. We may all feel overwhelmed at the moment – even the amount of support which is out there (including the wealth of resources to help us to manage distance learning) is potentially overwhelming. How do we filter and make sense of all of this, and support others to do the same?
  • The need to confront, accept and manage our own emotions, and to be prepared to talk about them openly and honestly, encouraging others to do this, too. It is not necessarily helpful to deny or try to bury negative emotions.
  • The reality of displaced anxiety, where our reaction to the pandemic, the fear and anxiety it inevitably causes, may be channelled in other directions so that our response to different subjects may seem disproportionately emotional and heated.
  • The value of appreciating diversity and being receptive to a range of opinions, giving everyone equal opportunity and encouragement to contribute to discussion, and resisting the temptation to feel we have to provide all the answers ourselves.
  • The crucial role of empathy and compassion – for each other, but also for ourselves, so that we avoid the tendency to jump to criticism and judgement and instead actively listen and try to understand.

Kathryn recommended the book ‘Time to Think’, by Nancy Kline, and Nancy’s suggestion of creating a ‘Thinking Environment’, a framework for productive, positive conversations which lead to fresh insights and viable solutions.  I read the book and found a number of helpful suggestions and ideas, for example:

“The quality of our attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking.”

“Even though more & more people are saying, ‘We don’t take time to think about what we are doing: we are too busy doing it’, there is time to think. In fact, to take time to think is to gain time to live.”

“Urgency keeps people from thinking clearly.”

“In this society, ease is not easy. At least if we are hurrying, we can be seen to be doing something.  And doing something is what produces results, isn’t it?  Not always.  Most of the time ‘being’, with no rush, is what produces results.”

“Teams are now the primary force of organisations.  They are worth cultivating at their core.  Their core is the mind of each team member.”

“To provide a full picture of reality it is necessary to get people from the beginning to articulate what is truly going well.  Focussing on the positive first sets up better thinking conditions for dealing later with problems.”

“Leaders pay a steep price for avoiding the truth of people’s experience.”

Making time to think: “15 or 20 minutes a day, or an hour or so a week doesn’t seem like so much when stacked against the hours & days, even years, you can spend handling the fall-out from having not taken time to think well beforehand.  Mathematically, ‘I just don’t have time’ is not defensible.”

“We think that to help is only to talk, to ask, to suggest.  In truth, however, to help is to listen.”

In advance of the #CPDConnectUp session, Kathryn sent out a think-piece to introduce some of the ideas we hoped to consider, with information about Nancy Kline’s book and the ten principles on which the Thinking Environment is based.  This proved a fruitful foundation for the session, during which we tried to give sufficient time for breakout groups to consider: What is an emotionally-loaded conversation and why might these conversations be especially frequent in the summer and autumn terms?  With whom might we be having such conversations in the current climate, and on what subjects?  What strategies might we use to ensure that these conversations are sensitively and effectively navigated so that we show empathy but also reach constructive, positive outcomes?  What ideas can we share?

Towards the end of the session we asked: Is there one thing you, as an individual, might do/do differently as a result of your reflections in this session?  Session participants shared their thoughts, ideas and commitments in the chat stream.

Since 2nd May, those who registered to take part have received a recording of the session, a summary, and a record of all the chat comments.  For the benefit of anyone who is interested in this subject but who doesn’t have access to the recording, summary and chat, these are some of the ideas which were shared from participants in the chat stream which might be of interest.

  • Recommended links: Brene Brown’s ‘Dare to Lead’ ; the Kubler Ross emotional model ; the Better Conversations from Instructional Coaching YouTube video from Jim Knight ; Sonia Gill’s ‘Successful Difficult Conversations in School’ 
  • The value of giving yourself a pre-conversation emotional temperature check as part of your planning and preparation; ensure you give sufficient time and thought to the preparation, and the follow-up, in addition to how you will manage the conversation itself; ask: What am I bringing to this conversation? What unhelpful assumptions/agenda may I have? Beware the tendency to over-think and pre-empt, which can lead to a self-fulfilling outcome; the importance of openness and receptivity
  • Recognising that the aim is not for the one individual conversation to be successful, but for relationships to be robust enough so that such honest conversations are part of the school’s culture
  • The crucial importance of building and reinforcing trust
  • Taking particular care with colleagues who may be quiet, including during current ‘check-ins’; remember all will not be forthcoming and some may need much more gentle encouragement; do ‘check-ins’ need to be more structured and methodical? If we are tending to do group sessions, do we also need to add one-to-one check-ins for some people? Spread the load among staff and don’t try to take everything on yourself
  • Ensure that the right people are having the right conversations with the right people at the right time (and this needs to be the right time for both parties); who is the best person to lead this conversation? Is it you? Ensure the conversation takes place in the right location/using the right medium, too
  • Talk less and listen more; summarise and clarify, but listen without interruption first
  • Consider your own resilience/mental health; be self-aware; monitor emotional states (yours and theirs) after the meeting too
  • Give the person you are speaking to advance warning/time to think and prepare too – you are not the only one who needs to reflect beforehand
  • Ensure sufficient support and training for your colleagues who are also holding these conversations; do we need some structured professional development linked to this, particularly to prepare for schools reopening? Remember the emotionally-loaded conversations which may have been ‘saved up’ during lockdown and which may flood us once schools reopen: prepare for that and prioritise them when/if that happens
  • Consider whether you are giving sufficient time for others to tell their story; respect others’ truths
  • Give careful thought to others’ motivation and how that affects their behaviour
  • Don’t leave the conversation too early: have you listened enough and reached the right point or does it need more time if you are to reach a positive outcome?
  • Ensure you pause and reflect appropriately so that you don’t simply say what you think others want to hear
  • We need to teach students to navigate these conversations too (eg Voice 21 dialogic models)
  • Don’t put off a conversation you know may be difficult; step up, don’t step aside
  • The value of turn-taking (Nancy Kline is especially good on this)
  • Plan a structure for the conversation, but don’t let it become a straitjacket
  • Be patient with yourself and commit to finding ease; be aware of what you need, too
  • Leaders check in with each other and discuss how these relationships/conversations are going; don’t just focus on the operational and ‘what we need to do next’
  • Be aware of hierarchy and power imbalance – how do we square that with seeing others as equals in these conversations?
  • Consider setting up teams to support each other, to share experiences and expertise; draw on the communication skills of all the staff
  • We want to help, but sometimes we just need to listen


Many thanks to all who contributed and who generously shared their opinions and their suggestions.  Thank you, too, to Kathryn, for being a wonderful co-presenter, and to David and the Teacher Development Trust for inviting us to do this and for skilfully hosting the session.

Photo credit: John Berry, using the images from the promotion of the #CPDConnectUp programme

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