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.