Managing difficult conversations in school by Andy Heron

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” - Martin Luther King Jr.


You might be surprised to be told that I am quite a forthright individual. I am very “down the middle” and am ordinarily very black or white. Obviously to elaborate on that last bit, I am a rules person and black is right and white is wrong.

Perhaps as an SBM/SBL/SBP et al, that is how most of us are. I don’t really have the statistics on it, but I am using the analogy based on how we have to follow rules and regulations, such as LA Financial and Audit policy, Academies Handbook, DfE policy, STPCD to name but a few. I tend to want to find where it says what can or can’t be done. If you can’t do it, I find where it says you can’t or it isn’t allowed and convey that to the person with the question, query or proposal. Roles reversed if it says you can do it.

Anything between black or white, grey (in a nutshell), is met with caution and I tend to tread very carefully if I venture down this path. My main reason – protection. Protection of the two main individuals that can get in serious trouble should they aim to bend or flout the rules. These two individuals being the Headteacher and Chair of Governors in my case, you will have similar in your schools.

Quite often, I am the bearer of bad news to many of my school stakeholders - pupils, parents, teachers, SLT members or the Governors. Being the bearer of the news that ‘you can’t do that’ and for what reason - it goes against procedures, isn’t legal or even worse “we just don’t have the money”. It’s not a job I relish but someone has to do it and in all reality, it is my job to make sure that the school complies with rules, policies and the law.

In this context I can have difficult conversations with a wide variety of people about a wide variety of things. In all the aspects of the role of being someone who leads on support services - finance, human resources, infrastructure, procurement and marketing.

At any given point without notice, any discussion can manifest itself into a difficult conversation that without having the correct approach or mentality can inflame the situation. 

Only last year, about this time, “difficult conversations” took place over the budget and how it wasn’t going to work with the, then current, level of expenditure. This resulted in many meetings and conversations in working towards a solution where a balanced budget could be set. One with any real hope of confidence that it would ensure the school met all its commitments and expectations.

When conversing about people’s livelihoods and matters that potentially can have far reaching effects, discussions can be very difficult and making decisions based on these discussions has to be right and for the right reason.

Having difficult conversations is not something that can be enjoyed and is often a stressful situation both for the person or persons leading the discussion or conversation. As it is for those on the other side of the desk or room.  However, in the current climate I would imagine that these kinds of conversations are becoming ever more frequent. I don’t like them but I never shirk away from having them. Quite often I find that they resolve a whole lot more than was expected and “clear the air” in preparation for something positive to occur.

I simply have a few rules that I use when faced with the prospect of having the occasion to deliver a difficult or challenging conversation.

They are not magic but are practical and I find myself referring to them more often of late, in relation to many areas that I am responsible for. Having all the facts to hand is a useful arsenal to have before any conversation because without them you may find yourself in a less favourable position for maintaining a positive outlook on events as they unfold.

My 8 points are as follows:

  1. Be straight about the issue
  2. Be unambiguous
  3. Plan out the conversation: if it goes well and if it doesn’t
  4. Watch your language
  5. Offer a resolution
  6. Manage your emotions
  7. Be compassionate
  8. Allow the other person to ask questions

All are as valid as each other but I particularly look at point no.3 as being a key one, planning for how the conversation is going is vital. Imagining it going to plan is all well and good but if it doesn’t have the ability to having a plan B, C or D is always advisable.

Other articles by Andy Heron that you might be interested in:


This article forms part of our Smarter SBM series, which supports the launch of our new Smart Ordering tools. Informed by, and created for SBMs, Smart Ordering is range of great online features and tools that can transform a school’s office with a smarter way of purchasing. It has been developed by the team at GLS Educational Supplies to help save schools money, by making the process of buying school supplies faster, smoother and more affordable. Find out more about how Smart Ordering can save your school time and money here.