No matter who or how you are, at some point someone is going to get angry with you. How you respond is a demonstration of your leadership skills. Your ability to manage the situation will affect your relationships and possibly your reputation. The “attack” can come from any direction –a teacher, and administrator, a student. There are basic strategies to deal with all of them as well as some specifics. Knowing these in advance will help you through a stressful situation and potentially result in a positive outcome.
When someone comes to you angry at something you supposedly did, pause before responding. Let the other party fully express themselves. That is likely what they most want. To be heard. As they talk, take time to breathe. Depending on your personality, your natural response will be to attack or defend and neither is a good solution. It will only escalate the confrontation.
My favorite example of diffusing a nasty interchange occurred when I had started a new position as the high school librarian in the early days of automation. A teacher stormed into the library and began haranguing my clerk. I stepped in immediately and asked the teacher to come into my office.
The tirade slowly ended. In between the “how dare you,” and “you had no right to,” was the core of the complaint which stemmed from a system the previous librarian created. My first thought was, “I just got here. It’s not my fault.” Rather than engage that way, I let her know I would fix the problem as soon as possible. I also consciously relaxed my body during the conversation. This added to my personal sense of calm and allowed me to stay focused on the teacher’s concern. By dealing with the message rather than the method of delivery, I was able to calm her and fixed the situation. Ultimately, the teacher became one of my strongest supporters.
On another occasion, the confrontation wasn’t loud, but it was challenging. In the late ’90s was the leader for the district librarian and was meeting with the assistant superintendent who began by stating my repeated requests to flexibly schedule elementary librarians was ludicrous. He had observed one lesson where the librarian used a filmstrip on how a book is made starting with a tree. He felt a classroom teacher could have done the same, and it was a waste of valuable time.
Once again, the person on the attack had a point. I agreed it was an unfortunate lesson, and my agreement took the wind out of his sails. He was prepared for an argument. I said it showed we needed proper professional development opportunities so we could deliver the program students needed. I earned his respect for that one.
My recipe for managing confrontations:
- Listen to the whole complaint/concern without contemplating your response.
- Use the time to relax your body and calm yourself.
- Respond to the core of the issue.
Anne Rubin authored a post on The Principal’s Guide to Angry Parents which contains good advice for librarians as well. Her recommendations are similar to my own.
- Stay Calm – Meeting anger with anger is a guarantee you will lose.
- Cut It Off – Recognize when the person had gone beyond acceptable limits. Change your body language. You can raise your hands to indicate, “stop.” Then try something like, we can’t resolve this now. I will get back to you on the issue. Using email will help you document the interchange if necessary.
- Protect Others – I stepped in quickly when the teacher was berating my clerk. You are the leader. Any problems are your responsibility.
- Don’t Take It Personally – It rarely has anything to do with you. It’s usually a situation that for some reason has frustrated the teacher or administrator at this time. Find the reasons and you’ll be able to change the situation. This is usually is true for why a student became angry with you.
- Know When Enough Is Enough – This is very much like Cut It Off. You can say, “This is not the best way for us to deal with problems. Let’s find another approach.” Your composure could make them angrier if they’re not ready to work with you and still want to be mad or right, but if you maintain it, you will bring the discourse to an end.
- Create Guidelines for Behavior- Rubin suggests principals create guidelines for others’ behavior. Since you can’t do this, you can do it for you. Be aware what your limits are so you know when to “cut it off” and when “enough is enough.”
Most people don’t enjoy confrontations, but we all get caught up in them. The only thing you can control in this situation is you so the more tools you have, the better. Look to understand what is fueling the other person and how to tone down the rhetoric. People will come to realize that you know how to manage these stressful interchanges. It makes you more trustworthy and demonstrates your leadership ability.