By Alex Gartner
Let’s play a game. The rules are simple: hold up five fingers. Ready?
Put a finger down if you’ve ever received a scathing email.
Put a finger down if you’ve ever been yelled at over the phone.
Put a finger down if a parent or supervisor has raised their voice in your direction.
Put a finger down if you’ve ever had a troublesome student lash out during rehearsal.
Put a finger down if you’ve ever sat in a meeting where someone was rambling something so offensive that it made your skin crawl.
Put a finger down if you’ve ever felt anxiety over having a difficult conversation.
Anyone still have a full hand of fingers left? I’d be quite surprised if you did, because for better or for worse, as educators and leaders in choral music, difficult conversations are part of the job. Depending on your role, your workplace, and your choral community, some might find themselves in these situations more often than others. Regardless of frequency, it is possible to guide these conversations toward a positive outcome—a path that can help curb its impact on your mental health and well-being. Here are a few tips:
Listen to determine intent
The first step is to ascertain the problem at hand. It’s highly recommended that you get this person on the phone or in person (emails and text messages often misconstrue intended tone). You may find that the instigator has a laundry list of concerns, some which might seem unrelated to one another. In the moment, acutely listening (and taking notes) is the only way to best prepare yourself to analyze the situation and see if you can connect their concerns to the underlying issue. It’s important to let the other party speak uninterrupted, which can be difficult, especially if they are emotionally charged (or if you feel compelled to react emotionally). With all your might, try to listen respectfully and get to the bottom of the issue.
Address the concerns at-hand
Once you’ve allowed the instigator to air their grievances (preferably without interruption), refer to your notes and take stock of your current understanding of the situation. Attempt to provide a brief, clear, and truthful explanation that is free from your personal emotions. (When we allow our own feelings to enter the conversation, it’s easy to veer off track.)
Allow space for feedback
In a similar fashion to Tip #1, the other party must have the opportunity to react to what you’ve said. If you treated them with respect while they were speaking, you may remind them to do the same if you find yourself frequently interrupted.
Invite them to be a part of the solution
If someone truly wants something to be fixed, then they should be willing to be a part of the solution. (If they don’t, then perhaps you might not take too much stock in the grievance at all.) After adequate dialogue, you may pose the question “what can we do at this moment to allay these concerns?” No, you do not need to rearrange your entire schedule to appease this person. But what you can do is collaboratively brainstorm a path forward. Be forthright about how quickly potential change could be made as well as your personal capacity to make it so. If possible, establish a timeline as well.
After your conversation has concluded and you have identified the best path toward a solution, you need to take steps to reach that solution. Get together with relevant players and identify who or what is going to be done to address the concern. Perhaps you need to get together with your principal or a board member and share what’s occurred. Talk through the situation, scrutinize your proposed solution, and act! (N.B. It’s important to understand that a simple act like considering someone’s opinion or reviewing an existing policy is indeed an action… even if you determine that change isn’t necessary.)
Once you’ve taken appropriate measures to allay the concern at hand, it’s important to go back to the instigator and inform them of your progress. Even if it’s not the outcome they expected, there is trust that can be built with the knowledge that you followed through on your word and that you considered their concerns. In many cases, these conversations are met with understanding and gratitude… even if the instigator didn’t necessarily get what they want! This step can help you define your relationship with the other party moving forward (and potentially avoid future difficult conversations).
At the end of the day, no matter the nature of the concern, most people simply want to be heard. Meeting these individuals with resistance, deflecting accountability, or even reacting emotionally can fan the flame. In a time where division seems to become more commonplace with each passing day, it’s important to equip yourselves with the tools you need to navigate these inevitable difficult conversations. When approached with a plan and with respect for all people involved, you have a greater chance of achieving a positive outcome.
Alex Gartner serves as the Artistic & Executive Director of the Pensacola Children’s Chorus in Pensacola, FL. Under his leadership, the organization has grown to impact nearly 25,000 individuals throughout northwest Florida, including over 5,000 youth, through innovative programs, performances, and organizational practices. He also serves the American Choral Directors Association as a member of the Advocacy & Collaboration Standing Committee, is an all-state coordinator for the Florida Music Education Association, and previously served on the national arts education council with Americans for the Arts. Find out more at BusinessofChoir.com!