Our perception is our reality



When I was an associate principal in Iowa, friends and family would frequently ask me how I dealt with “those” parents, the ones who were emotional or violent, those parents always waiting for me to conference about their students, those parents I had to call multiple times a day……

I would begin by telling them that I would rather have a parent in my face, yelling at me, than a parent who is invisible,uninvolved, apathetic, or completely absent from the picture and not part of our school community. Truth be told, problem solving with parents and students was one of the most uplifting, affirming things that I did as a building leader.

We cannot know what each parent or guardian brings to the table when we communicate with them about their children. We cannot know whether their own experience of middle or high school is coloring their current perception, we cannot know their personal, professional, health, emotional or other struggles that may be affecting how they are interacting with us. What we can know and practice are effective communication tactics and some basic conflict resolution skills. We can also acknowledge that conflict is normal, necessary and critical to moving organizations and relationships forward. It is how we address and resolve conflict that takes some practice.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that all humans need esteem and self-actualization at the top of the pyramid. As school leaders, we can ensure that parents and guardians are having some of those top two tiers needs met in each interaction with them. When we show parents respect in our interactions with them, we are meeting the need for esteem. When we engage parents in problem-solving related to their children, we are meeting the need for self-actualization.

A person’s perception is their reality. The next time a parents yells an expletive down the phone line, is raging and crying at your desk, or tells you that your school doesn’t understand their child or is not being cooperative, try these strategies:

Affirm them: Thank them for being there, for calling, for being involved parents. State that you have a shared goal, the success of their child.

Listen to them: Listening to them is not the same as hearing them. Hearing is only the act of perceiving sound by ear. Listening is something you consciously choose to do and active listening is a skill that takes time to develop. Active listening means that you are very focused on what the other person is saying, not allowing your own biases to color the intent of their words, nor are you focusing on whether you agree or disagree with their words, or concocting a counter-argument. Lastly, don’t forget that sometimes people just want to get it all out and be listened to, just the act of expressing oneself and having another’s full attention is powerful and affirming. Don’t look at the clock, take calls, or make that person feel that they have anything less than your undivided attention.

Get all of the facts clear and then problem-solve with them: Sometimes we jump to analyzing and concluding things before we have gathered all of the needed facts. Don’t allow yourself this deviation off the path and discipline yourself to stay in the fact zone before you move to problem-solving. Use mirroring, paraphrasing, asking clarifying questions until you have gotten all of the facts out there and you have captured the issues to everyone’s satisfaction. When you are there, creatively brainstorm options within reason with the parent. Solicit their input and make sure that all solutions are explored. Build on each successful interaction with parents so that their perception of your school is the reality, that it is a place where parents are affirmed, heard, engaged in problem solving with the shared goal of student success.

Conflict is healthy and inevitable in any organization. Conflict resolution requires practice and sharpened skills. Communication must always be two-way and the more practice you have at addressing conflict and resolving it through powerful communication strategies, the more effective your school will become and the greater sense of joy in your public service as a school leader you will take home at the end of the day.

There won’t be any more “those” parents.