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Do You Face Difficult/Hostile
Parents & Members of The Public?
Announcing Our New Books
Written For Teachers, Administrators, Trustees, and School Staff.
The following is the first
chapter from our book entitled Defusing
for Educational Personnel. You can order
using the form at order.htm.
1996 Copyright, Robert
following is reprinted from our book entitled Defusing
Situations (Ed. Personnel) and is copyright
Robert Bacal. For information on reprinting or
please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or at
Ch. XIV (Defusing
Hostile/Volatile Situations (Ed. Personnel)
Administrators and Managers
the previous chapters, we have outlined almost fifty tactics
defuse hostility, but we haven't specifically addressed the
and roles that administrative personnel can play. Just
clarify, this chapter will be of specific interest to:
Principals & Vice-Principals
Supervisors of Support Staff
are going to use the term, administrator, to include all of
administrators deal with hostile parents and members of the
what we have already discussed also applies to them. But
also play other roles in the organization and have
responsibilities. Specifically these additional
responsibilities relate to the following:
Reinforcing the use of defusing strategies on the part of
Ensuring the work environment is as safe as possible.
Communicating safety policy to staff
Communicating/explaining other important policies to staff.
Reversing or confirming staff decisions.
Creating a climate of respect for parents, children and staff.
take a look at some specific tactics.
Reinforcing Defusing Tactics
can influence the degree to which staff use
strategies. Keep in mind that administrators can take
leadership roles in the organization. Staff take their cues
appropriate and inappropriate behaviour from the people
them in the organization.
Tactic 51: Model Appropriate Behaviour
best way to encourage staff to use professional and effective
for dealing with hostile people is to model the behaviour
want them to use. If you treat staff, parents and students
way you want your staff to treat them, staff will realize
this is the "standard" of behaviour. If, however, you treat
and employees in ways that increase hostility, staff will
up on your behaviour. And, it is your behaviour that sets
standard, not just your words. When I worked for government,
can an expression: "We can't treat our 'customers' better
we treat each other."
managers have extra responsibilities. Not only must they
professionally when dealing with parents, but they must
treat employees equally well.
is one more area that is important. On occasion,
are called upon to intervene in conflicts that may
between staff. We call this the mediation role. When you
employees to use dialogue and cooperative communication,
are also helping to build skills and establish a "standard"
internal conduct. In mediation situations, those involved
watch you to see how you do it. If you apply defusing
staff will realize that this is the "norm" for the
Tactic 52: Support Skill Building
from modelling defusing tactics, administrators can also
a climate where skill building can occur. For example,
can support staff in attending seminars on
hostility and/or parent and community relations. Or,
can encourage staff to talk about difficult
at staff meetings, so that staff can learn
each other. The latter can be particularly useful, and is a
adopted by some of my clients.
regularly scheduled staff meetings, a short period of time
fifteen minutes) can be set aside to discuss a hostile
that has occurred. One person presents the case to the
of the group, and people can brainstorm around other
that can be used. Or, the case can be a "success
where a staff member shares what worked well.
Tactic 53: Debriefing With Staff
can play a teaching role by debriefing when
situations occur. For example, if a hostile parent is
to the principal, rather than simply forgetting about
incident, it makes sense for the principal to sit down with
staff member to discuss how he/she handled it, and to provide
about how the administrator handled it. This need
be a long process or a formal, unpleasant one. The best tone
take is one that stresses learning and prevention.
you are going to debrief staff, it is important that it become
"organizational habit", so staff don't feel they are being
out. To work towards creating a learning tone, be
with questions to ask the employee, such as:
Describe the parent's behaviour.
How did you react?
What seemed effective/ineffective.
What would you do differently.
How do you feel now?
can also describe the process you used with the hostile
You can make a few suggestions for future situations,
make sure you are specific, and refer to the staff member's
not him/her as a person. And only make one or two
so the individual doesn't feel overwhelmed.
sure that it is clear that you are working with the staff
to avoid future unpleasant situations, that you are
a support role, rather than a "boss" role.
the debriefing process is an opportunity for you to help
some of the stress the staff member may be feeling about
situation. For this reason, you should be listening more
Tactic 54: Recognize Appropriate Behaviour
don't always recognize or reward staff when they
defused hostile situations effectively. Staff need to know
value what they do, and to feel that you are aware of the
they face. It is very important to recognize
can be expressed in individual meetings with staff as
or in a group setting, where you can point out
incidents that were handled well. For example:
we end our meeting, I wanted to point out some really
work by Joanne. Last week, you may remember, a parent came
and was yelling and screaming about [whatever]. Joanne was
to calm the person down by keeping her cool and using some
statements. I know it is very difficult to deal with
situations, and I think we should congratulate Joanne for
able to defuse a really difficult and stressful situation."
way to recognize effective behaviour is to send a note to
individual, perhaps posting it where other staff can see it,
even including a copy in the personnel record of the staff
Wording can be similar to the quote above.
Work Environment Safety
have some responsibility to ensure that the environment
as safe as possible. Often this will involve looking at the
to make sure that it is arranged so that it promotes
Tactic 55: Conduct A Safety Audit
safety audit is a process where you examine your environment
policies to ensure that they support creating the safest work
possible. Safety audits are commonly undertaken with
to a "home base" (eg. the school, board building), but
also include an examination of how field workers (eg. if
do home visits) carry out their responsibilities. For
one client determined that safety for field workers
be enhanced by making cellular phones available to staff,
creating a standardized calling process so that the "home
was aware of where the employee was, and who he/she was
can undertake a safety audit yourself, but we suggest that
make use of law enforcement agencies and the services they
Often your local law enforcement agency can make
about how to arrange your offices, and suggest other
you can do to maximize the physical safety of all
A good place to start is with the community relations
of your local police force.
that a safety audit includes two components -- an
of the physical environment, and an evaluation of
policies and procedures that may impact on safety.
Tactic 56: Create Policy On Violence
of the hardest parts of dealing with hostile people,
those that are extreme in their behaviour, is
what one can and should do. Some of my clients have
to develop a written policy that explains to staff what
are expected to do in particular situations. This reduces
ambiguity and stress experienced by staff. It is a step that
recommend to ALL organizations that deal with hostile people.
some schools are developing policies regarding students,
is a difference between such a policy and one that would
to situations that might occur with parents of other
of the public.
vary, of course, but generally they include some or all
when staff can terminate service
how staff are expected to communicate this
when staff should request backup (security, police, etc)
how staff should request backup
how threats should be handled
when management should be involved
when it is appropriate to use "panic buttons"
reporting forms (incident reports)
of the best ways to create your own policy is to contact
organizations that may have done this. It is fairly easy
adapt someone else's policy to your situation. However you go
it, your policy should be relatively short, not require
amounts of paperwork, and be unambiguous. And, it should
the experience of those "on the line". Don't develop a
of this sort without extensive consultation with front
Tactic 57: Communicate Safety Policy
would think it would be fairly clear that simply creating a
regarding violence in the workplace is not sufficient and
each employee needs to understand it. Communication is
important. My experience is that a good number of
that develop excellent policies on the subject fall
when it comes to communication. Even in organizations that
had such policies in place for several years, I find a good
of people who don't know what the policy means, or have
that when they follow the policy, they get hassled by
non-educational organization developed a policy, and
"panic buttons" at front counters. The policy stated
when an employee felt a potential for physical harm, they
to hit their panic button, and this would summon additional
the manager of the installation made it clear that
were NOT to follow this policy unless the threat was
and obvious. He said something to the effect of "You'd
have a damn good reason for using it." At the same time,
were encouraged NOT to file incident reports, or summon the
when necessary, because these actions created "huge
surprisingly, staff were confused and angry about the
clear violation of corporate policy. In this case the
was that the manager had not understood that he was
to implement the policy as written, and that this would
considered part of his job. The problem was inadequate
to and from the manager.
is an extreme case. More often the policy is developed and
in writing, to be forgotten the next week. We suggest
the policy be discussed at meetings when it is introduced.
also suggest that the policy be discussed in an ongoing way
the first year. Managers can revisit the policy during
meetings, requesting input, comments, and real-life
about how it is working. This makes the policy come
life, and says to employees that management is taking its
Tactic 58: Communicating/Explaining Other
important aspect of defusing hostility is the ability to
WHY certain decisions have been made. We have discussed
in the chapter on problem-solving, but just to reiterate,
people need to know that your decisions are not made
and that rules and regulations serve some purpose.
people defusing hostile people need to be able to explain to
the reasons behind decisions, and be able to provide
order for staff to be able to explain things to clients, they
to understand the reasoning behind policies and regulations.
not all staff know why things are done a particular way.
it is important that the reasoning behind policies and
be clear to staff so they can convey them
to parents or members of the public.
annoys people more than a staff member who can't explain
reasoning of a decision, or the thinking behind a procedure.
suggest that staff be periodically "re-oriented" about
and procedures, and the reasons for them. And, of
when things are changed, it must be clear to staff, why
have been made.
that a well-informed staff member who understands why
are done will be better able to defuse frustrated clients.
Tactic 59: Effective Reversing of Employee Decisions
are times when an administrator will reverse a staff
decision. Sometimes it will be because there has been
error, but more often reversals are a result of a judgement
on the part of the administrator. Reversing a decision,
the reversal benefits the parent, can be an effective way to
a hostile situation. However, you need to know that
must be done effectively.
be aware that reversing a decision may appear like you are
undesirable client behaviour. We don't want to grease
squeaky wheel too often. So, when reversing a decision, it
be clear to all players, why you are doing so.
be aware that it can be frustrating for staff to have
decisions reversed. A common problem is that
don't take the time to explain why a decision has
reversed, so employees feel their competence is being
Make it clear to the employee why the decision has
have discussed a number of tactics related to how
can support staff in dealing with hostile clients.
underestimate the importance of the management role.
managers who communicate inconsistently can
affect the ability of staff to deal with difficult
while effective managers can be a valuable asset to
reducing the "fall-out" from mishandled hostile