Learning How to Say No and Set Boundaries with Parents

Jon Konen
District Superintendent

How to increase your "NO!" toolbox!

No other time in my 23 years of education has it been harder to say "no" to people. We want to be pleasers and support our all stakeholders as much as possible, but sometimes there's a limit to what we can do.

What I have found interesting is that now more than ever, the answer "no," isn't something a lot of people are willing to accept.

I first thought it must be my job. Then I thought it must be my level of influence. I thought…am I losing my influence? I even thought that maybe it is exclusive to the region and area where I live. This was all introspective work. I then started listening to others in education. There is a pattern here that is irrefutable and must be talked about…it's a trend nationwide, maybe even worldwide as we emerge from the pandemic.

How we live every day has been affected by the people around us like no other time in history…can you remember a time that has been more rife with conflict and controversy than what took place during the pandemic? I would put wars or conflicts at the top of this list, but in many ways the tragedy of this period seemed even more amplified.

What's different?

I believe access to instant information, as well as a platform for anyone to voice their opinion makes the pandemic more controversial than other historical events. Imagine this, what would Americans have posted on social media platforms during the Vietnam War?

This controversy showed up in school settings across the nation. People were not accepting "no" as an answer. They were willing to do just about anything to change a person's mind, and many were relentless about getting their way.

I do want you to know, I seldom use the word "no." In fact, I am all about compromise, and in my job that is my number one strategy when I "go to solution."

The concept of "going to solution," or the art of compromise, was first introduced to me by a professional development provider. He had developed a philosophy built off of Dr. William Glasser's Choice Theory, called High Trust Philosophy ®. In addition, he created a way of thinking, talking, and acting built on what he calls, Trust Psychology ®. Denny McLaughlin (www.hightrust.net), goes further into how society is infatuated with admiring the problem and not using that energy to solve it. He believes the faster you can "go to solution," the healthier you are when dealing with problems.

There are times where I cannot compromise and I must say "no." There are really only three standards I live by in my personal code, and everything usually connects back to them. We act and do things for safety, for health, or for education. If you think about it, most everything falls into one of these three standards. Let's dig into that.

"No," for your SAFETY!"

If something is unsafe, you must say "no." How you say "no" may look and sound different in a multitude of ways, but in the end, you want the action or behavior to stop, end, or not even get started. Here are some examples:

  • For safety, buses will not run today because of the weather.
  • For safety, you may carry the scissors with the blades down.
  • For safety, you may play on that side of the playground due to the ice buildup.

"No," for your HEALTH!"

Moral judgments come into play every day as an educator. What each of us think is "healthy" can be debated. When you tell someone "no" because you are worried for their health, you are in essence setting a standard. It is hard to refute risking your health, and here are some examples:

  • For your health, you may wash your hands before you eat.
  • For your health, you may brush your teeth at least once a day.
  • For your health and other's health, you may cover your mouth when you sneeze.

"No" for your EDUCATION!"

We spend four to five years getting a degree, many of us then continue to obtain more education with a master's degree and possibly more. Like doctors and lawyers, this education should hold some credence when we diagnose, plan, and implement a new intervention or strategy to support a student on their learning pathway.

  • For your education, while you are in my classroom your phone is put away.
  • For your education, meeting with me one on one for the next two weeks will support your learning.
  • For your education, taking advanced placement courses with face to face instruction is best.

saying no at desk

Steps to Increase Your "No" Toolbox

"When we're in tough rumbles with people, we can't take responsibility for their emotions. They're allowed to be pissed or sad or surprised or elated. But if their behaviors are not okay, we set the boundaries: I know this is a tough conversation. Being angry is okay. Yelling is not okay. I know we're tired and stressed. This has been a long meeting. Being frustrated is okay. Interrupting people and rolling your eyes is not okay. I appreciate the passion around these different opinions and ideas. The emotion is okay. Passive-aggressive comments and put-downs are not okay."

Brown, Brené. Dare to Lead (p. 68). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Brené Brown says it best, and we must lean into these hard conversations. Here are ten more strategies you can use when saying "no!"

1. Recap, Next Steps, and End of Your Terms!

A strategy I have used most of my administrative career involves a simple format. I recap what the person has stated. This usually provides a good opportunity to clear up any confusion I might have on what the person is trying to convey. Then I discuss next steps on what is going to occur, even if it isn't what the person wants. I then end the meeting on my terms. You can end it in a variety of ways, but here are some words I have used frequently:

"Thank you for your time and thoughts regarding this situation. My hope is that even though we may disagree, and you may be unhappy with the outcome, we can still move forward in a positive way for your child's benefit."

2. Less is Best

Many educators get into a larger predicament when they continue to talk, rationalize, and provide more examples. This tends to upset the person more as they are looking for holes in your thinking and rationale. More and more explanations can become problematic. They can find a supposed flaw and exploit it. Yes, we must provide a response that has rationale for our decisions, and you may have to repeat that to the person. Once we deviate from our plan, many times the situation gets worse. Be strong. Use and think of this great mantra, "Less is best, the best is less said!"

3. Define the Problem, Discuss Multiple Solutions, Offer Choice!

When talking to a parent or community member, define the problem with a mutual understanding of what occurred. Then discuss possible solutions that you can live with as an administrator. They may not be highly accepted by the parent, but you are then offering them a choice in how to solve the situation. People feel more empowered when they have a choice. In my experience, if you dictate the solution without them having a choice, there is a higher chance of disagreement and resentment that can build. This goes back to the Choice Theory as discussed earlier by Dr. William Glasser.

4. Listen to Understand and not to Immediately Respond

One of the most difficult strategies I have had to learn in my administrative career is "listening to understand, and not listening to immediately respond." When I listen in order to respond to a person, I am waiting for them to stop talking so I can respond and many times without fully understanding what they were saying. Slowing this down, repeating what they said so I understand them better can be a powerful strategy when I use the word, "no!"

5. Agree On What Can be Agreed Upon

Finding common ground is powerful when two people are in disagreement. Look for areas that both parties can agree upon. Use those agreements to build trust in the relationship with the person. Reiterate all the areas that we agree on, which might be fourfold as many compared to what is disagreed upon. This can help when stating your final decision.

6. Proactively Build Relationship

As an administrator, one of the most time consuming, but fruitful, tasks I found was not only creating, but sustaining strong relationships with parents and community members. The great administrators understand how important this is to not only their mental health, but the success of every student and staff member. Building relationships with parents and community members is time well spent!

When you have a relationship with families, you can have difficult conversations and use the word "no!" Don't forget, with those difficult conversations, you better be celebrating students as well. No parent wants to only hear from a principal when their kid does something wrong. There are a plethora of ways to proactively build relationships with parents and community members, Find what fits your personality.

7. Offer "Next Person Up" Strategy

Almost all schools have a grievance policy. The policy usually starts with the parent or community member starting at the lowest level where the problem originated. It is when a parent or community member is allowed to skirt this line of progression in the grievance policy that it makes the answer "no" more volatile. When a teacher or administrator says "no" and the parent or community member jumps straight to a board member, a loss of respect for the chain of command and the overall profession emerges.

There comes a time when you are unable to resolve the issue and the person wants a supervisor to respond to the situation. I highly suggest giving that supervisor advanced notice of the situation. Getting blindsided by a parent or community member can degrade your relationship with that employee. In my experience, communicating to the next person above you about the situation helps give them some background before they listen and solve the situation with that person.

8. Proactively Set Time Limits on Meetings

Sometimes we set up meetings with parents or community members and they go on and on past your allotted time. You know in the back of your mind that this may not be the best use of your time and the district's money. At over $50 an hour, I try to guard my time and stay away from frivolous conflicts. I do give time to any individual that wants to meet, but I am constantly prioritizing that time in my head.

Proactively set time limits on the phone or in your face to face meetings. Let them know if we can't come to a solution in this time frame, we may have to reschedule for another time. I use verbiage such as…

"I have meetings scheduled on both sides of our meeting. If we need more time, we can reschedule, but your concern is important to me, and I want to give it the time it deserves."

The relationship I have with my secretary is vital. If any of my meetings are going long, she has the word to come in and interrupt. Then I can reassess whether I am going to go longer or reschedule. Likewise, if the conversation is getting heated and "going south," I will send a thumbs down emoji to my secretary. She will then come in and interrupt to let me know of an impending concern I need to address immediately. I will then assess whether we end the meeting immediately or reschedule for another time.

9. Email, Phone, and Face to Face Strategy

In a continuum of effective communication, email is the least effective, followed by the phone. I hope we can all agree the best communication, much like teaching and learning, is in person.

One of the email rules I have for myself and my staff is the "Two Paragraph Rule." When communication is more than two paragraphs in an email, then I recommend calling or setting up a meeting with that person. In my experience, too many times I have seen lengthy emails get miscommunicated and misconstrued, and the intent is lost. Without body language, tone, and reacting to the other person, emails are obviously the least effective mode of conversation. They are used because it is efficient. While it documents the date, time, and specific words said, a lengthy email that needs to be sent can be followed up by a phone call or an in person visit. Text messages are about as (in)effective as emails, even though emojis can sometimes help clear things up!

Phone calls are next in line in terms of effectiveness. As an educator you can read the tone and react to the chosen words from the parent or community member. One piece that is missing from phone calls are the body language and proximity components. We can show empathy and compassion much easier in person. We can observe body language, and adjust our physical proximity, as well as the words and tone we can use in order to come to a solution.

Lastly, face to face is the most effective communication strategy. Unfortunately, there are only so many hours in a day. Excellent administrators use a combination of email, text, phone calls, and in person meetings in order to be the most effective communicators possible. The ability to read body language and adjust our communication (body language, tone, proximity, diction, and more) accordingly is a skill all administrators should be tuned in to. Likewise, Zoom or Google Meet is more effective than a phone call, but falls well short of an in-person meeting in my view.

10. Set Expectations Up Front

One strategy educators can use to their advantage is setting clear expectations. This means standards and expectations are set before the meeting even occurs.

We must not be afraid to set our standards, our boundaries, and our expectations. We can do this by proactively telling the person what the meeting is going to look and sound like…

"When we meet, we will be able to have a positive and constructive conversation. I have meetings scheduled on both sides of our meeting, but I want to make sure we meet as soon as we can because both our time is valuable. If we need more time, we may set up another appointment. You will have time to explain your situation. I may not have a solution today, but I promise to get back to you as soon as I can."

During the meeting, reiterate your expectations. Adhere to them. If the conversation gets heated and profanity is used, try one of the three strategies below.

hand up saying no

What To Do When Saying "No" Gets a Heated Reaction

Unfortunately, we have all been there when expletives and aggressive statements and even movements or gestures come from someone unsatisfied with the boundaries you set. Here are three strategies to use when "No" is not accepted and the meeting gets heated.

1. When Proactively Setting Expectations Isn't Working

If after you proactively set expectations with the person you are meeting with and that person isn't adhering to those expectations you may try a warning first…

"We can continue this conversation as long as we speak respectfully to one another, and it is constructive. If you chose to use profanity or you chose to be disrespectful, you then chose to end this conversation. We can speak at a later time when the tone and words are more respectful and constructive."

If it continues after the warning, I go immediately to strategy number three below and end the meeting. I do inform the parent that I am preparing to hang up or leave the meeting as I will not continue to listen to profanity and aggression.

Yes, I have left a parent in my office after feeling threatened. I then contacted our Student Resource Officer to let them know of the event. I went into another employee's office to make the call.

2. Proactively Bring in Support Before You Start

When I know I am going to be in a difficult and possibly unpredictable meeting, I include my secretary in the meeting. I let the person know in advance that she will be taking notes to get both of our words correct. I then use the secretary to read back certain parts of the conversation in order to understand the situation fully in real time. Sometimes, when we get frustrated, the words people use, even myself, get forgotten or the words are misconstrued. Using another person in these meetings also helps make sure it isn't a "he said versus she said" situation. Having a person in there that can stay calm and take notes can be a valuable strategy when dealing with difficult and heated situations.

3. Reschedule or End the Meeting

Lastly, when the conversation isn't going well and you determine that the conversation is no longer respectful and constructive, it is time to end the meeting. As an educator, you do not have to sit and endure profanity or aggressive behavior. You are a public official and there are laws in many states that prohibit a parent or community member from berating, harassing, or using threatening language towards a public official. In extreme cases, the police may need to get involved.

Even though I have won several national and state awards, this HAS happened to me, and I have had to end meetings. As an administrator of fourteen years, I have had to contact police and even had to have a police presence in my school, office, or meeting a handful of times. I have "trespassed" parents, not allowing them to be on campus.

After I have given the parent or a community member the warning that I am going to end this meeting if the behavior continues, here are the words I use next…and, it does help to practice these words before you ever have to use them..

"Mr. ___/Mrs.___, you choose to continue to use profanity and be disrespectful, that means you have chosen to end this meeting."

I then end the phone call, or I get up from my desk and leave on my own terms.

Jon Konen