Navigating Challenging Conversations

Five Things That Stop Effective Conversations

Every middle leader in education has encountered the challenge of effectively communicating with a resistant team member. This scenario can be fraught with tension and misunderstandings that hinder productivity and teamwork. In this article, we will explore the importance of clarifying an approach before engaging in such conversations and the key principle of “running a risk assessment.” We will delve into the SCARF model, which highlights five critical factors that influence people’s reactions in conversations and how understanding these factors can significantly improve communication with your team.

The Struggle of a Middle Leader

Let’s begin with a story about a middle leader who found herself in a perplexing situation. She was tasked with mentoring a new staff member who had years of experience within the organisation but was transitioning into a new department. Despite her best efforts, this new team member seemed resistant to her guidance and support.

The middle leader confided in a colleague, expressing her frustration, saying, “I can’t get this person to open up to have a conversation with me. He doesn’t want my help.” It was evident that the communication barriers were impeding their ability to work together effectively.

Run a Risk Assessment with SCARF

To improve your communication and address potential barriers effectively, we introduce the SCARF model, a framework developed by David Rock. SCARF represents five critical factors that influence how people engage in conversations and make decisions.

Status: When a conversation challenges one’s perception of one’s status within a group, people may become defensive or protective rather than open to connecting.

Certainty: In times of uncertainty, such as periods of change, people may feel uncomfortable and may even become resistant if leadership adds to that uncertainty.

Autonomy: People value their choices and freedom. If they perceive that their autonomy is at risk, they may resist a leader’s input.

Relatedness: The quality of relationships and trust between two individuals can significantly impact conversations. Disruptions in relatedness may lead to resistance.

Fairness: People have a strong sense of fairness. If they believe a conversation or a situation is unfair, they may become argumentative or uncooperative.

Running a risk assessment involves identifying which of these factors might be at risk for all parties involved in a conversation. By doing so, adjustments can be made to the approach to address these concerns proactively.

The Middle Leader’s Success Story

In the story of the middle leader mentoring the new team member, running a risk assessment was a game-changer. When the middle leader considered the SCARF factors from the perspective of the resistant team member, she realised that all five factors were at risk for that particular person.

Acknowledging this, she took a different approach to the conversation. She reassured the new team member that she respected his long service within the organisation, clarified how their relationship would work, and communicated her intent to support him in his new role. This simple adjustment resolved the barriers that had been hindering their communication.

Effective communication in educational leadership often depends on the ability to understand and address the factors influencing the other party’s behaviour. Running a risk assessment using the SCARF model can significantly improve conversations and ensure that one’s intent is clearly understood.

The concept of “when you name it, you tame it” is a powerful reminder of the importance of acknowledging and addressing the factors within the SCARF model during conversations. By explicitly recognising and verbalising any potential threats to an individual’s status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness or fairness, we can effectively diffuse tension and apprehension. When we name these elements, we take control of the conversation, making it transparent and approachable, ultimately taming the emotional reactions that might otherwise hinder open and constructive dialogue. This practice empowers us to navigate challenging discussions more successfully and build stronger, trust- based relationships within educational institutions.

As middle educational leaders, one’s role is crucial for building strong, collaborative teams. By applying these principles, leaders can navigate challenging conversations with success, foster productive relationships and create an environment that promotes growth and innovation in schools.

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Tabitha Leonard

Tabitha Leonard, creator and founder of coaching intelligence NZ is a certified communication coach known for creating school cultures where approaches to communication propel performance. She is obsessed with supporting leaders to communicate with the brain in mind so they can nurture exceptional educators. She can be contacted at