George Lucas Educational Foundation
Family Engagement

Responding Calmly to Upset Parents

When an angry email shows up in the inbox, it can be tempting to respond in kind. These five tips from a middle school principal lead to better responses.

October 28, 2019
Teacher walking down school hallway
PhotoAlto / Alamy Stock Photo

In working with children and families, we’ll all encounter what I call “ouch moments”—a phone message with a parent’s complaint about an interaction gone wrong, for example, or a social post taken out of context. The ouch can take the form of an email in 60-point font, bold, capitalized, and underlined; or a post on social media painting you or your school in a less-than-positive light.

This type of situation always seems to occur right at the wrong time. We might be heading out of the office or just checking email once at night when the complaint comes in. The concern may be minor; however, if we’re not in the best personal space, we may take offense at it.

While we can’t control what others say about us, we can control how we respond. This requires self-regulation, collaboration, and a willingness to seek support. Making sure we’re really ready to respond constructively also takes a lot of self-reflection.

5 Tips for Responding to Ouch Moments

1. Sleep on it: If an email rolls in after school hours, it is completely acceptable to wait until the next school day to respond. If you’re concerned that parents will think you’re not accessible, set up an automatic reply alerting them to your office hours, which lets them know when you’ll be able to respond. So even if you see the email at night, you can get rest and refocus before you respond to it the next day.

2. Take a walk: Have you heard of email apnea? It occurs when you hold your breath unconsciously while reading emails, expecting trouble. The next time an email comes in with a subject line or sender that tends to send you through the roof, check your heart rate and your breathing.

Before responding to a difficult post or email, I will often leave my office and walk around, spending time with the students I serve to regain perspective before I respond. Teachers might take time to play on the playground, or walk to the office and back, just to get a breath of fresh air and a little more perspective before rereading and responding.

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3. Phone a friend before you hit Send: Not sure that your eight-paragraph response is enough—or more likely might be just a bit too much? Ask another trusted teacher, instructional coach, or building principal to weigh in on your response. Often we’re preoccupied with our own emotions in these conflicts, so having a neutral party review your response gives you a perspective outside of your own to reconsider and possibly revise your reply.

In my former school, we took time during professional development to craft responses to hypothetical emails from families. This practice taught us how to respond in a professional manner and the importance of seeking help when communicating something difficult.

4. Pick up the phone: Sometimes the best response is conveyed in real time. If you’re spending too much thinking, rethinking, and reviewing your email response to a heated question or concern, pick up the phone. Allowing the other party to hear your voice, and allowing yourself to hear theirs, creates a great opportunity for empathy, clarification, and understanding about the concern. If you think you don’t have time for this kind of conversation, think about whether you have time to rebuild or repair the relationship once it’s damaged.

Be willing to start the conversation not with a right-or-wrong wrong approach but one focused on collaboration and finding solutions. No one loses when a common goal is established, one grounded in care and concern for all involved. There’s an opportunity for a ripple effect if you choose to lead communication with vulnerability and empathy: When you establish a common ground and build a sustainable relationship with a parent in tense circumstances, it becomes easier to do so in the future. The better you get at practicing this skill, the easier it becomes, and the more natural it is to generalize the attributes of positive communication to other relationships—at work and at home.

5. Let it go: Sometimes the best response is not to have one. Maybe a parent hit Reply All to highlight the three spelling errors in your most recent newsletter. Or maybe you put a lot of time into a recent school event, only to see negative feedback from families in a thread on Facebook. You’ll never win a fight on social media, but don’t use that as an excuse to stop telling your school’s story. Showing grace in your interactions online requires that you use your communication skills to defuse difficult situations rather than exacerbate them.

Ultimately, using strategies to build up  your ability to handle difficult situations and conversations will allow you to free up space in your mind and reduce the stress in your day—giving you more time to engage in teaching and leading without worrying about the next notification that might pop up on your phone.

A final thought: Too often we extend grace and forgiveness to others more easily than we receive it. But we should be open to receiving grace and forgiveness: Many of my ouch moments ended up being positive turning points in my relationship with a family, staff member, or student, and they ultimately taught me how to handle these situations better in the future.

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  • Family Engagement
  • School Leadership