How to Handle Untrue Accusations as a School Counselor

It is like a scene out of a low budget horror movie.  The phone rings and it is one of my colleagues from my old school.  "I need to tell you something and you are not going to like it."  (Don't you hate when conversations start this way!!  So, I stopped what I was doing and listened intently).  "Earlier today, one of your former parents came in and accused you of saying something that I know you would never say".  After a minute of silence, I immediately lost my cool and started trying to defend myself.  Okay, okay I thought...get it together!  After calming myself, I told my colleague that I was sorry and I appreciated her confidence in me (even though I was highly ticked off!).  However,  she wasn't finished with the news.  "Oh, by the way, the parent wants a meeting with you and the principal to explain yourself and what you are going to do about this situation". 

My response about a meeting with a parent!
After our conversation, I was really fuming.  In the past, I had always had a great relationship with this parent and felt that I treated her fairly and even went out of my way to make her feel informed.  Now, this same parent was accusing me of saying something that I knew I would never say to another human being and was even  requesting that I make good on a situation that I was clueless about!!!  Has this ever happened to you?  The typical..."The school counselor said".  Ugghhh!  

 Avoiding Barriers in Unpleasant Meetings With Parents

One of my purposes for writing this blog post is to give school counselors some ideas of how to avoid unpleasant barriers when meeting with an unpleasant parent, student, or staff member. Although I haven't met with this parent yet (oy), it is going to happen. Often when we face a difficult or unexpected meeting, we tend to avoid the situation (this can be a major mistake), lose our voice in fear (this can be due to our beliefs that we will not be supported or we just feel unsure of ourselves), or become defensive (never a good idea).   So, I have to create a strategy when I face this parent and one of those three choices is not one of the best options for me.  Okay, so what do I do?  Another question is what do you do when you face adversity as the school counselor?  In this post, I hope to provide some strategies for you to think about when and if this happens to you.

Honestly, I have been thinking about this meeting for two weeks.  Once I heard about it, I emailed the parent and told her that I would be glad to meet with her (take that avoidance...ha ha!).  Next, I sent a copy of the email to the principal so she was aware of the situation and was not caught off guard.  Fortunately, the principal knows the accusation I am facing and told my colleague she does not believe that I would say that...yes, I feel supported!  Now, I must have a strategy so I do not go into defensive mood.  Finally, the answer came to me from Google!  As I am reading my Google feed, I found a great article from a group of conflict specialists who deal with conflict in the workplace (I believe their advice is worth considering in my scenario). 

Bruna Martinuzzi wrote an article about facing unpleasant conflicts in the workplace and has some great advice for handling these types of situations.  Here are some of her tips:

When starting a meeting, make sure all parties are clear about the issue.  Martinuzzi says that you should be able to articulate the issue in two or three succinct sentences without going off into a tangent. 

Next, you should know your objective in this situation is not take responsibility for the parent's misunderstanding of what she thought she heard me say three years ago about her son's athletic eligibility. 

Really important, but super hard to do...listen!  Okay, this is a hard one when we feel that we have been mistreated, but this is really important.

Also, know how to start the conversation by using problem solving phrases.  Barry Moltz in his article, 10 Phrases That Can Solve Any Workplace Problem, gives some great one liners to use when facing conflict and misunderstandings.  I found three phrases that may be helpful as I go into this meeting. 

Three Helpful Phrases

1.  "I didn't realize this was going on, so tell me more."  This phrase will force me to be quiet and listen before providing additional information to the parent.

2.  "I want to listen to your point of view, but I can't when you are yelling."  This sets ground rules for respectful conversation at the beginning of the dialogue in the event the parent goes in for the kill!

3.  "I understand your point of view, but I see it differently." After listening to the other party, it is important to show that I have heard her concerns; however, it is important to set my boundaries.  Showing that I disagree and I am confident is going to be powerful.

In addition to these tips from the business industry, school counseling educators have some great advice for me to follow as well. 

Show the Spirit of Empathy and Collaboration!

Another great tip when meeting with defensive parents is to operate in empathy rather than knowledge.  If I go into this meeting saying something like, "Ma'am, you know I would never say anything as ridiculous as what  you are accusing me of saying regarding your son", um, that is not going to go so well with this parent. In an article by John Somers-Flanagan, he writes that parents,
unlike any other group, are "simultaneously defensive and vulnerable". Somers-Flanagan believes that if we, school counselors, approach a conversation like an expert then parents are more than likely to attack instead of respecting our professional opinion.  Somers-Flanagan also suggests that school counselors should employ a spirit of collaboration when working with parents. This collaboration involves the school counselor recognizing the parent as the expert so we don't risk the impulse to overemphasize our role! 

Although I am nervous about this meeting, I feel more prepared having reflected on these strategies.  I hope this goes well, but if not, I have tried my best to prepare for this meeting and I will stay professional (this is really important!).  At this point, this is all the advice I have for this post, but if you want to know more about working with difficult parents or situations, check out these other resources.

Rethinking Difficult Parents
Dealing With Angry Parents
Working With Difficult Parents
Resources for Dealing With Difficult Parents and Students

Also, please check out my other posts on dealing with angry parents.  Can you tell I have a bit of experience?

A Tutorial on Responding to High Conflict Parents

Graduation Hell Week: Dealing With Angry Parents

Responding to Nasty Emails