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Five tips for staging tough conversations in early years settings

Centre directors


Conflict resolution

Difficult conversations

Early learning


Solve problems

Staff balance

Tough conversations

By Michael Hawton

12th February, 2018

Centre directors face often painful emotional encounters when they need to address issues with staff or parents. Achieving harmony and balance so staff look forward to coming to work and create the best environment to build a child’s emotional development are important factors in creating the right work atmosphere in early years centres.

But, it’s tough out there for educational leaders at the moment.  Take the recent reductions in trust in authority, for example. An ongoing survey on the health and well-being of educational leaders shows that they are experiencing increasing levels of stress and more emotionally-fraught situations in their work life, compared to 20 years ago.  Being any kind of educational leader, so it appears, is exacting an enormous personal toll on our otherwise esteemed leaders.

It appears that nothing sets a parent’s jets flaring than when a perceived injustice is affecting their child – and educational leaders are in the thick of it - in regard to making sometimes unpopular decisions about children, each and every day.

More generally, it would appear that people in authority or more broadly, management, are having to hold tough conversations with people who possess varying capacities to tolerat frustration. That is, leaders are having to engage with individuals who have widely varying abilities for not losing the plot!  People are getting more uppity than a generation ago and it would appear that people are quicker to arc up than used to be the case.

In my experience, the types of difficult interactions that leaders are dealing with, fall into two main camps: ones where someone comes ‘at’ you unexpectedly and ones that go pear-shaped in the middle of a conversation.  In both these types of conversations, it’s important to know how to manage yourself (and not get caught, like a rabbit in the headlights) and to know how to apply what I call ‘a drop-down menu’ of thing to say that will help manage a tough conversation.

I used to see a lot of these types of heated conversations when I worked in The Family Court of Australia, as a court mediator. In the court, I saw people who were often cranky at each other and some who were angry with the court’s inefficiencies and decisions. Sometimes they were cross with the court staff. So, I had to learn ways to manage tough conversations on almost a daily basis.

It was here, in the mediation sessions, I learnt that there were ways to help people to be their best self.  By listening earnestly and by using some good conflict resolution skills, it was often possible to help people solve problems and to not flip-out, if they became frustrated.  While it is not necessarily our job to make people behave themselves (after all they’re adults), there are some simple things you can do as a leader – which you can do to help someone else to hold it together.

There are a number of ‘go-to’ conflict resolution sayings and skills which will work across many tense encounters. If you know some of these, you will feel more confident and you won’t get blindsided or stuck.

As a starter pack for your tough conversations in the year ahead, here are my five tips for staging more successful ones:

  • First

    , make sure you have all the facts before you have any tough encounter - and do your preparation. You may have to go and dig a bit deeper than you expected to get the best facts.

  • Second

    , prepare for being interrupted. In other words, expect to be questioned or detoured and to have strong emotions come your way. Learn ways to handle these likely interruptions.

  • Third

    , use a written script to work out what you’re going to say first, second, third etc. Many professionals use scripts, including mediators, to guide them in their words and actions.

  • Fourth

    , work out what you want as far as an outcome goes, by establishing SMART goals,


    you hold a tough conversation.

  • Fifth

    , because you’ll be prepared before you begin, you’ll be better able to take a calm but firm demeanour into a tough conversation which may turn out to be difficult. So, go into a tough conversation as if you were going over to the neighbour’s place, to make a complaint about the noisy party last night. Remain, as best you can, matter of fact.

You can find out more about Tough Conversations for Early Years Educators courses at the following web address: https://www.parentshop.com.au/early-years/centre-directors/

by Michael Hawton MAPS


About the author

Michael Hawton is the founder of Parentshop, providing education and resources for parents and industry professionals working with children. He has authored two books on child behaviour management: Talk Less Listen More and Engaging Adolescents.


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