The front desk just called to let you know a parent is asking to speak with you and heads up, they are angry! What would you do to calm an angry parent? As school counselors, we are trusted to handle all situations, and sometimes, the situations are not pleasant. Just remember, that in order to help someone who is angry, you have to be calm. If you just read an email that infuriates you or you are upset that a parent is demanding to speak to you, wait until you are calm to respond or act. Even if it means the parent has to wait a minute, then they have to wait. Collect yourself and remind yourself of these strategies BEFORE you speak or respond.
Here are some ways that can help you to diffuse an angry parent.
#1 Listen with empathy
This may sound basic, but in reality, most people just want to be heard. They want someone to listen to their frustrations without interrupting them and as long as it takes to get whatever they’re saying off their chest. Whether over the phone or in person, listening with empathy and acknowledging their feelings and validating their emotions is sometimes all it takes to de-escalate someone who is angry. Many parents, students, and teachers come to the counselor because they’re frustrated about something, and even though you may not be able to “fix” it, they just want to be heard. Saying things like “I hear you.” “I understand your frustration,” and “is there anything I can do to help?” validates their feelings and creates opportunities for you to help them in any way that you can. Using I Messages is always a great way to diffuse situations. For example instead of saying “You seem upset”, try saying “I imagine that would be quite upsetting.” You just used empathy and an I message, making it that much more likely the parent will be receptive to what you are saying. I messages are a great conflict mediator technique, I use this I messages lesson and activity to teach kids how to use I messages instead of YOU messages.
#2 Offer support and resources
After they finish speaking and they feel heard, try to offer some solutions–if they’re open to finding solutions. If it’s a situation where you can help by offering resources or even speaking to the person they’re frustrated with, you may be able to find a solution just by clarifying a misunderstood e-mail or a conversation. Many times, parents are upset because of a miscommunication, and we can comfort them by just helping them understand what was meant or why the comments were said. Students also become upset when they are not communicating effectively with their teachers. Taking the initiative to speak to the teacher and clarifying for the student can avoid miscommunication and an irate phone call from a parent.
#3 Don’t take it personally
Let’s try to remember that parents and students are people too. If a parent calls you and is angry and may be rude over the phone, don’t take it personally. We have no idea what this person has been through and in many cases, the anger is not towards you. I am not saying to allow anyone to be disrespectful towards you, however, if we as counselors get defensive because we are taking what they’re saying personally then we are not able to see the bigger picture and find a solution. Try to remember that they’re speaking with you because they care about their child and there is something they need help with. If we listen with empathy and assist them in finding a solution without taking anything they might have said while angry personally, then they will see you a source of comfort and as someone they can talk to when they need assistance.
#4 Try to offer a different perspective
Whether we’re speaking with a frustrated parent, student, or teacher, there is always another perspective to be taken into consideration. When we get frustrated, sometimes we are guided by our ego and fail to see the bigger picture. Offering perspective to the person sitting in front of you will help them understand that every situation has different angles and different circumstances. Maybe a parent is upset because a student has not been completing his assignments, and that anger is being directed towards the teacher.
#5 Guide them towards the appropriate feelings
Counseling means we help people with their feelings. Just like in the example above with the parent and the student, if the parent says she’s angry “because the student has not been turning in her assignments and she used to be such a good student” we can guide that emotion and that statement to say “you’re disappointed at her lack of effort when you know she can do a lot better”. Instead of “angry” or “frustrated” we can discuss why the parent is disappointed, bring a different perspective to the situation, and when the parent and the teacher meet, they will have more emotional understanding to discuss what is going on. In this way, we can help our students, teachers, and staff to discuss their feelings by listening and understanding each other’s perspectives and acknowledging their own emotions. Teaching students about feelings? Check out this low prep Monster Themed Emotions activity that teaches 15 different emotions.