Handling Difficult Conversations
Using the Waters Memo Strategy Meeting (WMSM) approach
If you are uncertain whether the behaviour of the other person is bullying or harassment, go to:
Having a difficult conversation is...well, difficult. No one enjoys having a difficult conversation. So much so, that we tend to avoid them.
If you avoid a conversation because it is difficult, you give control to the other person. If you do not tackle what is making the conversation difficult, you allow the situation to continue to affect you. By default, you are choosing long-term harm over the short-term challenge of raising the subject. Worse, the person with whom you should be having the difficult conversation is likely to continue their behaviour and escalate it. You can be seen as a target or a victim or, at the very least, vulnerable and non-reactive.
Those who bully in the workplace could often have been stopped and action taken at an early stage by their target having a difficult conversation. Not every situation which needs to be tackled by having a difficullt conversation leads to bullying. But every instance of workplace bullying needs a difficult conversation.
The Waters Memo Strategy Meeting (WMSM) approach enables you to take control,
while remaining professional.
The Waters Memo Strategy Meeting (WMSM) approach
Either read the advice below or download our booklet containing this advice. Click on the image.
How to Tackle Difficult Conversations in Teaching:
Using the Waters Memo Strategy Meeting (WMSM) Approach
Fictitious example: Chris: Teacher. Alex: Line Manager
Your line manager, Alex, constantly criticises you, often in front of other staff. The criticism is work-related and is mainly directed towards your teaching ability and your management of behaviour. The criticism is rarely accompanied by constructive advice or guidance about how you can improve. It is wearing you down. If it continues, you feel that you will be unable to cope. You are very anxious and dread going into school. You have been unable to sleep properly for six weeks and are exhausted.
How to approach this issue using the Waters Memo Strategy Meeting (WMSM) Approach
The WMSM approach ensures that everything is documented. While most difficult conversations have been resolved using the WMSM approach, if it fails to bring a resolution, you have written evidence of how you tried to resolve your concerns. This would be important if, for example, the matter were to proceed to formal processes.
You politely request a meeting via email to discuss your concerns. You attach a memo to your email.
Here is an example:
I would appreciate it if we could meet at a convenient time to discuss some concerns I have. The concerns are related to your opinion of the quality of my teaching and management of behaviour.
I have put together a short memo of how I see the situation, with suggested strategies for moving forward. I hope that this will be helpful during our conversation.
The Waters Memo Strategy Meeting (WMSM)
(Sub-headings can be used for any meeting)
1. My concerns
I am concerned about the following:
1.1. Your comments in private about my teaching and behaviour management.
1.2. Your comments in public, including during meetings, about my teaching and behaviour management.
2. The impact on my life
The criticism is impacting my physical and mental health:
2.1. I have been unable to sleep or eat properly for several weeks.
2.2. I am dreading coming into work every day.
2.3. I am very anxious.
2.4. I am feeling exhausted and am worried that I will soon have to take sickness leave.
2.5. I feel that my professionalism is being questioned.
2.6. I have lost self-confidence.
2.7. I love teaching, but I am afraid that I will be able to continue.
3. The way forward
I respectfully offer the following proposals as a way forward:
3.1. I would appreciate it if you would avoid commenting about my teaching and
behaviour management in public.
3.2. When you give me feedback in private, I would find it helpful if it is accompanied by
constructive guidance on how I can improve.
3.3. I suggest that we schedule a meeting to discuss this memo. During the meeting, I
would appreciate guidance on strategies that I should use to improve my teaching
and behaviour management. I will be pleased to summarise the actions we agree
during our meeting and send you a copy for your records.
3.4. I propose that the improvements that you identify are dated for review after a period
of 4 weeks. This will give me time to put the strategies into effect.
3.5. I suggest that, at the end of four weeks, we agree a date and time when you will
observe me and give me written feedback. After the observation, I propose we
meet again to discuss the feedback. I will be pleased to summarise our meeting
and send you a copy for your records. If we are unable to agree on the evaluation of
the observation, I suggest we send a written request to a third party to conduct a
3.6. I propose that, four weeks after the first observation, you observe me again and give
me written feedback. After your second observation, I suggest we meet again to
discuss the feedback. If we are unable to agree on the evaluation of the observation,
I propose we send a written request to a third party to conduct a further
4. If we are unable to agree a way forward
4.1. If we are unable to agree that the course of action in this memo is a positive way to
resolve my concerns and we fail to agree an alternative, I propose that I send the
memo to [the headteacher – or person next in the hierarchical structure] to ask how
we should proceed.
Before the meeting with Alex
The meeting with Alex
‘I appreciate that we have a different perception of…’
‘I understand that you feel strongly about this…’
‘I recognise that you would not feel like I do if the situation were to be reversed…’
‘I can see that we see things differently…’
‘I would like to bring the conversation back to…’
‘As I said earlier in the conversation…’
‘I would like to be able to agree a way forward, as summarised in section 3…’
‘I understand that we have differing viewpoints. We don’t seem to be able to reach an agreement on the way forward. I will be pleased to summarise our meeting and send a copy to [the headteacher – or person next in the hierarchical structure] to suggest how we should proceed’.
How to handle the meeting
Email to [the headteacher – or person next in the hierarchical structure]
I sent the attached memo to Alex and we met to discuss my concerns.
Unfortunately, we were unable to agree a way forward.
I am writing to ask if you could advise me on how I should proceed.
Q: What if Alex is the Headteacher? A: If Alex is the Headteacher, and no progress is made, you would then approach the CEO or Executive Headteacher or, if the school is not a member of an academy trust, the chair of the governing body. In this case, you should consider being accompanied by your union rep or the teacher governor or both.
School Staff Support
Sources of Support and Help
The Education Support Partnership is a charity. Their free helpline, staffed by trained counsellors, is available to all teachers, lecturers and staff in education (primary, secondary, further or higher education) in England, Wales and Scotland 24/7, 365 days a year.
Grants are also available for staff who are facing financial hardship.
08000 562 561
If you’re struggling and you’re not sure if you want to live or die, can you - just for now - hold off making this decision and keep reading and watching the videos at https://stayingsafe.net for some ideas about how to get through.
There may be things that you - and other people - can do to make things better.
You may have found yourself wishing that you were dead, or perhaps thinking that the people who you care about would be better off without you but with support you can choose to live.
Even situations that seem almost impossible to face can feel different if you remind yourself that feelings don’t last forever and you have an idea of what you can do to get through this painful time. Please share our hope that you can find a way forward.
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Offer health checks to your teachers and support staff
Take action - increase wellbeing
Do you offer workplace health checks for your staff? An unhealthy and unhappy workforce can be costly:
Evidence shows that workplace health initiatives can deliver a wide range of benefits, to both employers and staff. Staff enjoy improved wellbeing, and workplace health checks can even pick-up conditions before they cause symptoms. Employees working for firms that promote wellness are more likely to be engaged, and think positively of their employers.British Heart Foundation research shows that employers who invest in appropriate and successful workplace health initiatives have the potential to see a return on investment of between £2 and £34 for every £1 spent. Typically, programmes that address overall health pay back over two to three years, while more targeted interventions – such as weight management, or smoking cessation - can be even quicker.
Liaise with your local Health Authority to request support to provide health checks in your school.
Should you have the flu jab?
School leaders: Please ask staff to seek medical advice before requesting the flu jab. The advice below is taken from the NHS website. We are unable to say whether vaccination for flu is medically appropriate in individual cases.
The average absence due to flu is one week.
If your school pays for 50 staff who are not eligible for a free flu jab to be vaccinated, it will cost no more than paying for a supply teacher for two days. It makes wellbeing sense. It makes financial sense.
Yes - you should have the flu jab: if you are over 65. Or if you have any of the following conditions, irrespective of your age:
Your GP may advise you to have a flu jab if you have serious liver disease or a neurological condition such as multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy or learning disability.
If you are pregnant, you should also have the flu jab. Vaccinations are free from your GP for the above groups.
For staff who fall outside these groups, the cost of flu jabs is usually no more than £10 from pharmacies. Why not ask your school to pay for vaccinations for staff who are not eligible for a free jab? You may be able to arrange for a local store or pharmacy to visit your school, college or university.
Click on the image of the needle to find out more about the flu vaccination.
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