Sunday, November 16, 2008

Reframing Conversations with the Miserable

As principals we all spend a part of each week listening to or hearing from unhappy parents. As long as our schools enroll students we will have the added pleasure of dealing with parents on a consistent basis. Sadly the top jobs at those few high schools meeting the needs of orphans have been filled for years.

To be fair most of us are a little jaded when it comes to interacting with parents. The five percent who are chronically miserable in all areas of their life usually fill up ninety five percent of the parent meetings on our schedule. The truth is that most of our parents are happy well-adjusted individuals with a firm grasp on reality. The Church rightfully declares parents as "the primary educator" and our roll of assisting in their child's development and growth is more often than not a shared blessing. But alas the buck stops with us and so too does the final stop for the unhappy parent.

I'm willing to argue that the large percentage of unhappy parents that make it to your door are usually upset over non-academic or core issues. More likely than not their concerns will have to do with some co-curricular aspect of the school. Little Johnny has been cut from the basketball team, played in the wrong position for the wrong amount of time, or has suffered some other life altering injustice that if uncorrected could ruin his life forever. Some parents just need to be heard and quickly ignored. Others take a little more work to appease.

I'm writing this post to share a concept gained from a recent professional development day that helps reframe these lovely conversations with an eternal lens that honors our rich Catholic heritage.

About a month ago I had the opportunity to sit through a presentation about "happiness" by the Spitzer Center. Our board chair and former fortune 500 exec had arranged for the group to visit our little corner of the midwest and provide a session for local business and civic leaders. I left for the meeting with the usual enthusiasm for a day away from the office during the middle of the school week. The Spitzer Center is the brain child of Father Robert Spitzer S.J. the president of Gonzaga University and mentor for the positive thinking guru Lou Tice.

The session focused on seeking happiness. What was interesting about the session was the retelling of truths that as Catholics we've known for a couple thousand years. Essentially in the end we all want to be happy. As Catholic educators we are drilling this drive for happiness into our children every day mindful of the fact that eternal happiness rests in union with God. There are four levels of happiness. Level one has to do with pleasure. A nice piece of prime rib and a beer on a Friday afternoon are all pleasure giving in their own right but these pleasures are fleeting. Building our life around the accumulation of level one items is doomed for failure if not addiction. Level two has to do with things that are good by comparison. A certain job over another, a house with large square footage, a new car are all good in their own right. But their worth is valued in a large way by being compared to something not as good. To focus on level two items like wealth, power, and position will eventually lead to spiritual emptiness and poverty of soul. Level three happiness has to do with altruism and leaving the world better than we find it and recognizing that our individual gifts are properly expressed in service to others. Level four happiness is the perfect happiness that we are created for which is found eternally with God.

None of the above is new to our faith. Apparently the business world doesn't often grasp the truth of the above statements. Imagine that. But what is potentially exciting and new is reframing parent conversations around these levels. The family concerned about "playing time" or Billy's role in the school play is not helping their child reach level three and level four happiness. They are overvaluing level two and teaching Billy to express his self-worth in ways that will not lead to lasting happiness. Of course getting the conversation to this point is always easier said than done. I like to drop somewhere in the conversation that if, "high school athletics are the highlight of life then life is pretty empty in the end". The timing has to be there of course but usually the sooner I can get it out the better.

I have to believe that the more our students and faculty grasp the meaning and value of the different levels of happiness the more these concerns over perceived injustices will go away. Perhaps a little suffering will lead to a little self growth.

Please share your thoughts below and your own tricks and methods for dealing with difficult conversations.


Anonymous said...

It is important to remember that every uspet parent is upset because of the love they have for their child. The most unpleasant parent I ever had to deal with became a supporter once I was able to convince him that I loved their child--that's the hard part.

Souly Catholic said...

Great point. I think you've made a great point. Convincing mom and dad that the school wants what's best for them as well is truly critical.

Clay Burell said...

I have little to add beyond the approaches you already mentioned - and in general, a sympathetic ear and a soft answer often turneth away wrath indeed, I've found - but do want to thank you for the chuckles in the first few paragraphs.

Suffering does lead to truth, though, husbanded well. At least I think so.

Ed said...

Great topic. I am an assistant principal and have had many meetings, emails, and phone calls like these from parents. I think that the first comment was a great one. Letting parents know that we understand that their perspective is coming from love of their child goes a long way. I often find that they appreciate greatly the time i spend listening and not judging.

This blog post and comments have been very helpful.