How to conduct difficult conversations

Written by: Helen Frostick | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

All this year, National Leader of Education Helen Frostick is offering term-by-term advice for new headteachers to help them prioritise their work and reflect on areas for improvement and focus. This time, she focuses on one of the most challenging areas for new leaders – difficult conversations

At any time of year, difficult conversations will most probably top of the list of the concerns of most headteachers. Dealing with difficult conversations with staff can be the biggest challenge, regardless of experience.

These conversations are the stuff of sleepless nights. And not surprisingly: staff are a school’s greatest resource and the most expensive.

At times of staffing challenge, it is important to have up-to-date job descriptions and contracts. Paperwork needs to be reviewed, annually, as it serves as a recommitment to what the conditions of service are. These are non-negotiables.

At my school, St Mary Magdalen’s, reviewing job descriptions takes place in the first three weeks of the new school year but it is never too late to revisit them at any point in the year (this is also a good opportunity for staff to reread the Data Protection Policy too).

Taking action

There are many types of staffing challenge but, no matter what the problem, it is never an option to avoid the issue. A meeting should be set up with the staff member to determine the gravity of the situation. In this meeting, the first step will be to ascertain what is causing the issues in the first place.

In the first instance the way in can be one of support. If you can look to the long term and what you want to get out of the meeting and ultimately the service of the staff member then that can give you the confidence necessary to tackle the issues.

The sooner the action can take place the better, rather than letting anxiety build. Remember as well that the rest of the staff will look to you to act with strong leadership. Also, more critically, if the situation is heading towards capability or disciplinary it is better to take action earlier when the situation first arises, to help prevent a more serious situation developing. If it can be raised at an informal level, the problem may be resolved before becoming formal.

Preparation time

It is important to do your homework before meeting. If the staff member is unhappy about something in particular then take the time to assemble evidence to illustrate why the decision or change has been undertaken.

Keep it factual. For example, this could be regarding an unsuccessful application for an internal promotion or progression up the scale.

It is up to you whether you give advance warning of a meeting to allow the member of staff time to prepare too. In my experience, this gives it a more formal feel, so I would rather have an initial more informal meeting to see whether a problem can be nipped in the bud and then come back to it if necessary. To offer double meetings, as with challenging parents, gives the impression that you are prepared to put in the necessary time to reach a mutual conclusion.

The meeting structure

  1. Set the right tone, explain the purpose of the meeting, set out the structure of the meeting, agree standards of behaviour, adopt a calm and professional manner, and reassure the employee about confidentiality.
  2. State what the issues are and give examples and details.
  3. Ask for an explanation and listen well. Body language is important so lean forward and nod.
  4. Agree a way forward – reach agreement at the end of the meeting. However, avoid changing tack if the staff member does not agree.

During the conversation

It is best to be direct in what you are trying to say and to have clear action points. Explain that it is important to be honest in order to move forward. Say that it may prove uncomfortable to listen to the negatives. Acknowledge this.

Follow this by going over the key areas causing concern and the key points of the meeting. Do not go above five points if possible.

Give the member of staff the time to discuss the issues and make sure that he/she understands the points. Try hard not to look at the clock if the meeting starts to run over. It is a good idea to clear the diary for double the time you expect the meeting will last.
I have found it beneficial to practise what I intend to say beforehand with a senior member of staff such as the deputy headteacher.

Conversation style

As well as leaning forward and nodding, make eye contact and look directly at the speaker. Do not smile as it can appear patronising. Ask questions but do not interrupt. Make notes of key words as the meeting progresses. It can be beneficial to have a third party minute the meeting. The notes will be useful later.

Follow up

It is useful to summarise the meeting in a letter. This can include the action points and targets going forward. It is always useful to talk to professional bodies who specialise in these areas. For example, Acas would always suggest a follow up meeting to discuss improvements. The alternative might be that formal measures need to start. There is a great deal of helpful advice should this be the case.


It can be a goodwill gesture to invite the staff member to review the notes from the meeting to give them an opportunity to annotate the information recorded. This helps to establish a partnership as the next steps will be crucial in tackling the issues. It will be ideal to get buy in at this stage. Open communication is the key to reaching a positive resolution.

Referrals if appropriate

It could be that outside agencies can be involved to support the staff member (counsellors, occupational health, trade union etc). If the situation leads to a formal disciplinary, it is important that school leaders have offered support early on.

Further information & resources

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