Successfully Navigating High-Stakes Conversations

By Jill Dunchick


Scenario #1:

A teacher who is two to six minutes late on a consistent basis because of traffic between her son’s daycare and the school.

Scenario #2:

A trusted team member who sent a Reply All email that did not reflect your school values.

Scenario #3:

A teacher whose wife is a rock star teacher on another campus needs to be placed on an improvement plan.

Scenario #4:

A teacher who struggles to internalize his lessons.

Scenario #5:

A team member who needs to be fired, and who moved his wife and three children across the country to teach for you.


Take personal inventory after reading the five scenarios above. Is your head hot? Has your heart rate risen slightly? Is there a knot in your stomach? Are you suddenly transported to a memory of a botched meeting that you had two years ago? Is there an onslaught of obsessive thoughts going on in your head about how to fire this team member and what will happen to his family?


SELF AWARENESS: the first key step in handling challenging situations well. If you were able to note any change in your mental, physical, or emotional state after reading the above scenarios, you are well on your way to being able to handle these difficult instances with ease and grace. If you did not notice any change in your physical, emotional, or mental state, go back, re-read the scenarios again, and make a list of any changes you notice. Still nothing? Take a current situation that you consider “almost on fire” in your school. Write three sentences to describe the “almost on fire” scenario. What do you notice about your physical, mental, or emotional state? Still nothing? Call your coach- you are most likely steam rolling every important conversation in your school, getting several “Yes sir, Yes ma’am” responses, yet little lasting change in adult behavior.

Once you know and can identify your physiological responses to a trigger, it becomes easier to lead through them. When you begin to notice a reaction (hot head, heart rate increase, obsessive thoughts, etc.), no matter how minor, pay attention. This feeling is your body warning you that it is about to move from the frontal lobes – the rational part of your brain – to the brain stem; the instinctual fight, flight, freeze, reptilian portion. When in instinctual mode, you will struggle to recall basic facts, keep a consistent tone/pace, and truly pay attention to the other person. When you notice a high stakes conversation is “triggering” something in you, take a breath, sit down, and bring yourself back to the frontal lobe by PREPARING your talking points.


PREPARATION is the second key ingredient to conducting high-stakes conversations with a clear head. There are several frameworks that we use in our schools, including Six Steps for Feedback, Data Analysis Meeting Framework, Leadership Team Agenda, and the Crucial Conversation CRIB Method. No matter the framework, when faced with a conversation that is challenging for you, it is best to prepare your talking points. There are four essential keys for being effective in these talks: (1) Be concise, (2) State the facts with backing data, (3) Use pregnant pauses and (4) Clearly name the desired behavior.

Once you’ve mastered those basics, there’s one final element – consider it the special Cane’s Sauce impact on the plain chicken tender – to handling high-stakes conversations well: adapt your approach based on the behavior of the recipient in your conversation.  Below you will find a modified Recipient Emotion/Your Response chart taken from Dick Grote, in A Step by Step Guide to Firing Someone. According to Grote, when someone is getting fired, (I have adapted it to include any time someone is receiving difficult feedback) they are likely to experience one of four emotions: shock, denial, anger, and/or grief. If you find yourself facing someone who is undergoing any of these four reactions, use this chart to successfully navigate your way through the High-Stakes Conversation to your desired outcome:


The Emotion Your Response
Shock Acknowledge the emotion.

Don’t debate or defend.

Repeat the message.

Denial Repeat the message.

Ensure it got through.

Continue to repeat the message.

Anger Acknowledge the emotion.

Don’t debate the merits.

Don’t defend the decision.

Be firm.

Grief Acknowledge the emotion.

Keep it moving.

Focus on the future.



The video below, taken from a training I led for the Leaders for Emerging Network Schools program, provides an example of best practice in navigating a firing conversation:



In short, to successfully navigate high stakes conversations like the five scenarios listed in the beginning of this blog, you need three things:

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Preparation
  3. More Self-Awareness



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