Over the past few years I have had more interactions with increasingly aggressive and challenging parents than in previous years. Most of my student affairs colleagues across the country have shared similar experiences like this along with their frustrations. Although a lot has been written about the recent helicopter parent phenomena, I have not seen much on how student life professionals can and should handle parents such as this. As the new academic year starts, I would like to offer some practical advice on how you can better communicate with challenging parents.
1. Seek understanding before taking action. Many times parents can “catastrophize” situations because they are hearing secondhand information from their son or daughter, which may not necessarily be fully accurate. Reacting to a parent’s reaction without fully understanding the situation at hand can create chaos and further bolster the parent’s anxiety (and your own). If necessary, take extra time to find out the facts and then simply call the parent back. The problem could be a simple misunderstanding that can be easily resolved.
2. Explain the reasoning behind policies and procedures. Nothing can be more irritating than hearing someone tell you, “Well, that’s our policy” when you want something resolved right away. Fully understand the reasoning behind why your department has the policies and procedures that it does so that you yourself can explain the philosophy behind why things are the way they are. Policies and procedures are created to save time, money, resources, to enhance safety & security, and for the personal development and education of our students. Explaining these things can disarm someone particularly when the reasoning behind these policies are usually easily understood and appreciated.
3. Predict and respond to irrational thinking / reasoning. Many times, the emotion underlying anger is fear. People can become angry and aggressive when they fear that something overly negative or disasterous will happen. Parents can easily assume the worst of a situation particularly when they are not around to easily solve whatever the perceived problem may be. Irrational thoughts that an overreactive parent can have include the following: this is going to cost me a lot of money; my student will have to transfer universities because of this; this is an incredibly dangerous situation; and they don’t care about my student. You can dissolve a problem quickly if you can predict up front what the underlying thoughts a parent may have, which is causing them to be overly anxious. By providing accurate information and tactfully challenging those irrational thoughts, you can calm someone down quickly.
4. Move the conversation along toward action. Your time is important and you have other issues to attend to so make sure that you are moving the conversation along toward some sort of resolve. Be respectful and tactful, but cut to the chase as soon as possible. One easy way to do this is by asking: “Sir, how would you like me to resolve this?” or “What would you like me to do, mame?” Being empathetic and allowing someone to vent is one thing, but permitting someone to lecture and berate you is counterproductive.
5. Provide alternatives and options. Another way in which you can move the conversation along toward action is to provide alternatives and options. Figure out what these options are for various situations so that you can pull them out of your hat when the need calls. The alternatives and options may not necessarily be the exact solution the parent is asking for, but at least you’re showing a good faith effort to create a solution rather than doing nothing at all.
6. Do not allow yourself or your employees to be abused or bullied. I simply refuse to listen to an abusive parent or allow my staff to suffer the same abuse. You have to know when to say when. It is alright to acknowledge that things are getting out of hand and maybe there is a more appropriate time to discuss the matter when clearer heads can prevail. I have had multiple parents apologize on subsequent conversations for how they acted and appreciated how I resolved the situation afterward.
7. Refer to your supervisor. This should go without saying, but if you find yourself in a situation that you simply cannot resolve or the person is being overly hostile or foul-mouthed, refer them to your supervisor. Additionally, if they should demand to speak to your supervisor, do not become upset by this, just help them with their request by giving the appropriate contact information. Try to plan for this strategy ahead of time with your supervisor so that you are both on the same page when the need arises to employ this tactic.
8. Attempt to get to know them as people rather than adversaries. Keep in mind that you may have a multiple year relationship with many parents so be purposeful in your communications with them. Include them in newsletters and other pertinent mailings. Send them departmental or institutional promotional items (e.g., t-shirts, pens, mugs, etc.) as a token of your appreciation, kindness, and generocity. If you have the opportunity to talk in a personal manner, ask them about their work, their interests, and anything else of note they may discuss. Establishing relationships like this creates trust and will go a long way if you have to interact with them again in a difficult situation.
Scott M. Helfrich is the director of upper campus housing at California University of Pennsylvania, co-owner of Student Life Consultants, and the creator of http://www.studentlifeguru.com.