The Persuasive Principal

By Emma-May Litchfield and Danielle Hutchinson

A Principal must wear many hats. Management of students, teachers, support staff, the board and parent expectations requires skill. Working with so many people means conflict is inevitable. Whether it is between staff members, staff and students, staff and parents, it is how we manage it that sets us apart. Rather than feeling uncomfortable in the face of conflict, we can choose to see it differently. Effective conflict resolution is a preventative measure.

  • It can be an opportunity to strengthen and mend relationships.
  • It can be a means by which we can role model respectful standards of communication.
  • In more serious disputes, it can mitigate the need for legal intervention.

Here are some tools to add to your repertoire from the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) field, for the next time someone comes to your office seeking advice about a conflict that has arisen.

  1. Active listening: Often the person coming to see you has a real need to be heard. Repeating back what someone has said is a simple but effective method of ensuring they will know you heard them. This can be done either using their exact words or reframing what they have said. For example, “So you’re saying that you are ‘feeling frustrated’ because so-and-so ‘took the credit’ for the work you did together?” More importantly, if we actively listen, it will enable us to uncover the real interests or what is really important to this person about the conflict.2 Identifying the underlying interests of each party is a skill that is truly worth developing.
  2. Silence: Sit back and wait to ensure they have been able to ‘get it off their chest’ before trying to solve it for them. It’s difficult for most people to sit in the silence, and if you give them time, they will often flesh out the story for you.
  3. Giving a person the space to resolve their own conflict: This one can be tricky, because, as a Principal, part of your role is to assist members of your team in resolving many issues that may arise. This may sound contradictory, but resist giving advice. When the person asks “What should I do?”, rather than telling them, ask open questions to help them explore possible outcomes. Scaffolding questions like, “What have you done in the past?”, “Has this led to an outcome being reached?”, “What could you differently?”.

A good manager endeavours to be fair and thoughtful, especially when managing conflict. Conflict managed effectively supports the practices presented in the current Australian Professional Standards for Principals. Building on our already rich repertoire “provides opportunities for all staff to learn and improve together” [1].


[1] Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, > Australian Professional Standards for Principals and the Leadership Profiles

2 Zinsser, J.W (2015, June 4). John W. Zinsser: Navigating from Storm To Agreement (Video file). Retrieved from

3 Crum, T.F.  1987. The Magic of Conflict: Turning a Life of Work into a Work of Art. New York: Touchstone.

Managing the challenge of collaborative practice

There is no disputing that teaching has changed. Traditionally, teaching was a solo endeavour with each practitioner responsible for what occurred within the confines of their classroom. However, on the back of extensive research into improved student learning outcomes, the “lone ranger” model has shifted to one that is centred upon team-based professional practice. Additionally, it is now well established that parent and carer involvement at school also helps children achieve the best possible learning outcomes.[1] To this extent, schools have become learning communities committed to working together to maximise student learning.

However, true collaboration is not always easy and occasionally it will result in conflict or require challenging conversations. Such conversations may be with difficult people or with people in difficult situations. Either way, it is important that teachers develop strategies to navigate these often emotionally charged scenarios if they are to maintain constructive working relationships within their learning community.

One way to transform potentially tough conversations is to focus on identifying the core concerns of everyone involved. Research[2] suggests there are typically five core concerns that are important to most people. These are:

  • Appreciation: Are our thoughts, feelings, and actions devalued, or are they acknowledged as having merit?
  • Autonomy: Is our freedom to make decisions impinged upon, or is it respected?
  • Affiliation: Are we treated as an adversary and kept at a distance, or are we treated as a colleague?
  • Status: Is our standing treated as inferior to others, or is it given full recognition where deserved?
  • Role: Are the many roles we play meaningless, or are they personally fulfilling?[3]

These five core concerns are responsible for stimulating most emotions and because of this they are a useful means of making sense of the multitude and complexity of emotions that are often unavoidable during conflict or difficult conversations.

Ideally, if you are in a position to prepare for your difficult conversation, you might consider identifying your core concerns, the other person’s core concerns, what you can do to address your core concerns and what you can do to address their core concerns. By preparing in this way you will be in a much better position to build trust and generate rapport. This is because, even if you don’t agree with the other person, you are more likely to be able to clearly articulate your own thinking, and more importantly,  show that you have made a genuine effort to understand where they are coming from.

Alternatively, should you be unfortunate enough to find yourself unexpectedly amidst turmoil, the five core concerns can serve as a mental checklist enabling you to make sense of any uncomfortable interactions and therefore more likely to respond constructively.

By adopting an approach which focuses on managing relationships, teachers have a greater chance of successfully negotiating positive outcomes from difficult situations. In doing so teachers can make an important contribution towards enabling the learning community to maintain its focus on working together to maximise student learning outcomes.



[1] Department of Education and Training Victoria, For Parents > Parent Involvement > Parent Participation at School,

[2] Fisher, R. and D. Shapiro. 2005. Beyond reason: Using emotions as you negotiate. New York: Viking.

[3] Daniel L. Shapiro How to Use Emotions, Negotiation Journal January 2006, p105-109.