Five Strategies for Keeping Calm on a Difficult Phone Call
Whether on the first day on the job or within the first month, all school administrators experience tense phone calls with people whose emotions run high. Yelling - screaming - accusations - even threats. After many years as a school leader, I admit that I've had my fair share of heated phone calls with passionate parents.
After all, if the problem were an easy one, one of my amazing teammates would have solved it already! From secretaries to teachers and everyone else on staff, educators are helpers - by the time something reaches my desk, it's usually a little complicated.
If you're a new administrator whose wondering how other school leaders deal with angry phone calls, you're not alone. The truth is that none of us were "good" at navigating angry parents when we started this job. Personally on one occasion, a parent's line of accusations were so hurtful, personal, and specific, I began sobbing uncontrollably and abruptly ended the call. Now, that was in my second year as an administrator. Over the years, my skin has grown thicker and my toolbox - more robust. I hope some of these strategies will help you navigate those calls with grace and dignity.
Here are five strategies that I have found help me navigate heated phone calls. But first, let's work on how to get some advance notice!
My secretaries are incredible. I can't express my gratitude enough for school secretaries - I often joke that I know who is really in charge around school, and it's my dream team in the office.
Before they forward a phone call to me, every secretary (whether in attendance, the registrar, or the office manager) asks, "May I tell her what this is regarding?" Without exception, parents give a little context when asked that question. And when one of my secretaries gets the sense that the parent is frustrated or angry, they give me a heads up. This is essential and frankly, so helpful!
From there, I launch into using the following strategies:
Deescalating Difficult Parent Calls
Strategy 1: Seek to Understand
Partnership with parents is a powerful tool in our leadership toolbox. Time and time again, I've been so grateful for the team I have as a school leader with parents and families. Even if a parent is angry or frustrated, it's important to remember that a partnership is possible at the end of the conversation.
Therefore, I've found it vital to enter into a heated call with this goal in mind: seek to truly understand their perspective. I try to put myself in their shoes, with the information they have (or don't have, for that matter), and seek to see things from their lens. Principals would all agree - they have cooled raging infernos in minutes - simply by hearing parents' concerns.
Even if my secretary tells me, "I have a parent on the phone who is really mad about _______," I start every phone call by acting as though I know very little context, having their child's information up on my screen, and saying to the parent, "How can I be helpful today?"
I make sure to use their child's name and to call the parent by name during the call. I work hard to communicate my respect for them. Sometimes I take small notes, such as references to their child's interests or details a parent shares. After all, I am grateful that they decided to call me and problem-solve, rather than just take it to the community or to social media. This phone call, it turns out, is a gift.
Parent phone calls are a great opportunity to win over or keep a loyal customer.
9 times out of 10, when I genuinely listen and seek to understand a parent's concerns, we are able to navigate the matter smoothly, quickly, and calmly. They emerge with trust in me and our school; maybe I emerge with a tip to improve our school.
Strategy 2: Switch to Speaker Phone and Turn the Volume Down
When I hear yelling in my ear, my heart races, my stomach drops, and my thinking gets rattled. When someone shouts profanity or hurtful things at me, I stop breathing deeply and naturally enter that 'fight or flight' feeling. I know I'm not alone.
When this happens, I stop being a good listener and really stop being a good thinker.
I often use the tool of putting people on speaker phone and turning the volume down enough so that I can still hear them, but their yelling doesn't bother me.
Now, some parents do not want to be put on speaker phone. In fact, it breeds suspicion because they think someone else is in the room. (By the way, I always announce when a person is on speaker phone and someone else is in the room! I've watched other principals get into big messes by not doing so.)
If I decide to go the speaker phone route, I simply tell the parent that I'd like to record some of their concerns but I can't do it while holding the phone. I tell them I have them on speaker phone so I can capture their concerns in writing. I tell them that we're alone and no one else is listening to our conversation.
Little do they know, this speaker phone strategy serves us both. They get the sense that I'm listening intently and taking their concerns seriously, which I am. And I get their yelling voice out of my ear so I can stay calm and stay focused on a solution.
Strategy 3: Have Company
Like you, many of my parent calls involve student discipline. In most major student discipline cases, a teacher, my assistant principal, or dean of students are involved.
If there's any chance that a parent is going to be angry, yell, or scream, I find that having a partner with me helps me stay calm. With another person in the room - even if it's the student themself - I tend to stay more emotionally regulated when speaking with a heated parent.
Again, I put them on speaker phone so everyone can hear what's being said. I announce to the parent that they're on speaker phone and who is in the room.
My suggestion ~ if it's possible and appropriate, don't be afraid to call for backup if you're headed into a heated situation. There is strength in numbers, and sometimes we need strength to get through tough situations with professionalism and a clear head.
Strategy 4: Keep Breathing
The science behind the fight or flight response is very clear - when we experience stress (like the kind that comes from a parent yelling at us), our bodies react in very specific, predictable ways.
Our heart rate increases, our breathing shallows, and our thoughts get cloudy.
If you can consciously do anything during a heated phone call, it's this: keep taking deep breaths. It's a free, easy-to-use, always available strategy for maintaining calm and a clear mind.
One strategy that I use is to do counting breaths. Slowly inhale for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, then exhale for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. I repeat this breathing pattern over and over again. Another strategy is to breathe into my abdomen rather than simply into my lungs. Focus on deep breaths is something I have total control over, even in uncontrollable situations.
This self-regulation technique helps me stay present and calm, no matter what parents are saying to me.
Strategy 5: Seek to Solve
I think it's a misconception that "some people just want to be heard." Although feeling heard breeds trust and confidence in school leaders, I believe most people want to be heard and to feel as though something will be done.
This gets tricky as a school administrator. Sometimes parents have requests for me that I cannot honor. For example, I will not shut down a student organization just because its values don't align with theirs. After all, most of our community members aren't trained the way we are in school law and student rights.
My goal is not to give people what they want. Instead, it's to see what about their concern I can address. For example, I recently had a parent call me very upset that we have a faith-based group that meets at lunch. This club was entirely student-generated and is student-led. The parent was upset at the branch of faith that this club espouses. I knew that I would not shut down this student group and made that clear to the parent; after all, students have the right to assemble, and the club acts in accordance with our school board policies.
Instead, I listened to the parent and understood the following: after several minutes of questioning and putting down the other faith, the parent seemed to get clearer on their real question. They wanted to know if their student could meet with others of their faith and form a club, too.
Absolutely they could! I walked the parent through our club application process and directed them to our school board policy. The parent left the call with possible next steps and thanked me profusely. I've never heard from the parent (or the club, for that matter) again.
Regardless of the parent's concern, I believe there's always something I can offer - whether it's a compromise, information, or a genuine fix. Occasionally, parents and I leave conversations "agreeing to disagree." Most parents appreciate our sincere efforts to problem-solve with them; certainly they can sense when that is our intent.
When to End the Call
Sad as it is to say, there may be times when you need to end the phone call. As an early administrator, I'll admit - I lacked the tools for drawing boundaries with parents. That is, I didn't know what words to say, or how soon it was okay to say them.
In my early days, I assumed that once parents got it all off their chests, they would be calmer and feel better. That is not always the case.
Sometimes parents are so inappropriate, you must end the call. If you have to end the call, it's okay. But be deliberate in finding a time to circle back with the family, if it's appropriate.
For me, when parents use profanity or refuse to stop yelling, I decide to take steps to end the call. I never just hang up on a parent. Instead, I say some variation of following statements. It really depends on the context, but I've learned to keep these words in mind so I can easily say them if necessary:
"I can tell you're very upset and I'd love to talk collaboratively. Let's schedule a time to talk when we're both calmer and can find a reasonable solution. How about tomorrow at 9?"
"I will not tolerate you swearing at me. I'm happy to keep talking but not if you keep using profanity."
"It is not acceptable for you to (call me names, attack me personally, call the teacher names, etc.). I'd like to continue this conversation calmly, please., but you cannot _________."
I give the parent a couple warnings and boundaries. If I repeat these lines and the parent doesn't change their behavior, I say, "Sir/Ma'am, I am ending this phone call now." Then I hang up.
I take a deep breath. Because that was tough. Sometimes I call a trusted colleague and talk it out. If I have time, I'll take a walk around the building and breath deeply. I focus on calming down and self-regulating.
None of us like to hang up on angry people. But sometimes, it's necessary for the rest of the people I serve - the other nearly 700 people I'm here to support. I can't let one person derail the day.
Keep in mind, I don't have to use this last-ditch strategy often. For the most, parent calls - even heated ones - resolve themselves through effective listening and genuine solution-seeking on both our parts. But if you ever do need to end a call, don't feel bad. You're not alone. You (and your career) will survive.
Have you ever had to hang up on an angry person? What strategies do you use to stay calm when tensions flare? Please leave a comment below for your fellow administrators!