An AP’s Guide to Managing Conflict

Handle conflict courageously to remove emotion from the equation and put the focus back on student learning.

Assistant principals (APs) will encounter their share of “difficult” personalities or squeaky wheels in their work, including parents, teachers, and fellow administrators. Handling such people deftly and unemotionally is key to reframing conversations in a constructive and productive manner, rather than barreling toward conflict.

In “Help! I Didn’t Pick These People!,” a 2022 NAESP Pre-K–8 Principals Conference session, presenters Stephanie Johnson and Diane Watkins Edwards advised school leaders to use planned, “courageous” conversations with “characteristically difficult” people to avoid getting caught up in the other person’s emotions.

And to head off potentially confrontational situations from happening in the first place, the speakers suggested working to forge strong relationships, seeking to clarify problems as they arise to better understand how to help fix them, and reminding everyone of the shared central goals: student learning and student safety.

APs can also lower the temperature by ensuring the privacy and confidentiality of conversations, says Tia Jones, assistant principal at Catawba Trail Elementary School in Elgin, South Carolina. They can consult with the principal, if necessary, but they must recognize the potential perils of “talking out of school.”

As APs seek to frame conversations in a nonemotional way, they should agree to disagree rather than engage in he-said, she-said debates. If they avoid arguing, taking sides, or stirring the pot while meeting the situation and discussions surrounding it head-on, APs can build the familial culture of collaboration that leads to student success.

William D. Parker & Friends’ “Principal Matters” blog offers several additional pointers for dealing with difficult people, such as:

  • Make sure you aren’t the difficult person. Convey an open, welcoming, and listening attitude to those who are upset and expecting resistance; don’t be defensive or go on the offensive. Remind yourself that you don’t know what else that person has been dealing with that day—and they don’t know the same about you.
  • Seek to understand before being understood. Take notes when someone shares concerns so you have the person’s full range of thoughts and can better triage facts from emotions. This helps the other person feel as if they are being taken seriously, decompress, and provide specifics.
  • Be firm but friendly. Tell the truth in a gentle way to earn the listener’s respect without making excuses, deflecting, postponing, or hemming and hawing. Polite honesty can defuse a possibly explosive situation and might lead to new insights into the issue.
  • Be aware of your demeanor. A smile and handshake can disarm an angry person, while sitting side-by-side together at a table (instead of across a desk) conveys allyship. Use eye contact, relaxed body language, and a calm tone of voice even when delivering strong or unwelcome words. Use humor tactfully.
  • Agree to disagree. The object isn’t to win or lose. If you can’t resolve the issue yourself and the other person is still dissatisfied, give them an avenue for appeal elsewhere in the leadership structure. This conveys a desire for mutual respect.
  • Consider bringing all parties to the table. Widening the conversation can be constructive in slicing through misunderstandings and finding solutions that can help resolve the conflict.

While it’s challenging to reason with any unreasonable person, these proven techniques can help manage confrontations. Listen, stay calm, and try to determine the person’s hidden need with an awareness that one response does not fit every circumstance.

Any consistently unreasonable person or ongoing conflict is likely to trigger a fight-or-flight mechanism in your brain, but do your best to follow neither instinct. “It’s up to you to engage your conscious mind in order to defuse the situation,” says psychologist Barbara Markway in Psychology Today.

Ed Finkel is a full-time freelance writer who covers K–12 education and other topics.