Along with you, I’ve had my share over the years of dealing with highly emotional parents, tiger moms, complaints, unkind emails, and irrational requests. It happens to any teacher, I’m sure. But even empathy from others is not wonderfully helpful when it happens.

HELP! Give Me One Technique for Dealing with Difficult Piano Parents

A few years ago, I came across a quote that inspired me to change the way I think about these situations:

Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

IanThis quote is falsely attributed to Plato and it appears that the original words came from Ian Maclaren. Regardless of where they come from, they are powerful. He goes on to say:

This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self.

So after reading this quote, I began to try to change my response toward irrationality and grouchy people. When I’m at my best, I can now ask,

What is this parent facing? Fear that their child will fail? Fear that their child will miss opportunities? Fear that they are not a good parent? Pressure because they have made poor choices in their scheduling? Pressure from school, sports, or other organizations? Lack of involvement or help from the other parent? Financial strain? Aging parent issues? Heartache? Broken relationships? Focus on self that leaves them feeling empty? Lack of engaging friends?

When I really remember that they are fighting a battle, though I may never know what that battle is, I can enter into a more empathetic posture and respond in a de-escalating way.

Let me say that again:

Respond in a de-escalating way

If I had to pick one thing that I could share with you that would help you when you deal with parents, it’s that. De-escalation. One of my friends who is a therapist talked about this years ago. She described what most people do when they are in a fight. They move up the ladder of negative comments, each comment getting more and more cutting and damaging, until they find themselves calling each other names and screaming when they were really only disagreeing about the way the dishwasher should be loaded.

call them

For heaven’s sakes, Wendy. Call them!

When we escalate an argument, we “help

[our] lower self” and wallow in behaviors that do nothing to bring beauty and truth to other’s lives [At least that’s my interpretation to the quote above.] To bring it back to piano teaching, here are some of the ways you can de-escalate when you receive a nasty email or demand:

  • Empathize. Acknowledge any difficulty that they are expressing in their comments.
  • Offer alternatives if there are any.
  • If it’s a phone call or in person and you sense that they are not going to hear anything you say, ask for time to think through what they have said. This will give them a chance to calm down. “You know, I really appreciate you sharing that. Let me think about that for a while and call you back.”
  • Write or speak in a positive tone, remembering that their anger is just a signal of a deeper emotion they are feeling at the time. While you might want to defend yourself, try empathizing and feeling compassionate for their struggle.
  • Call them back instead of engaging in an email battle of words. You can accomplish a lot more with less stress on the phone many times than through email. I’ve suffered many a stressful day and sleepless night wondering if someone got my email, what they thought, and what there were going to write back. For heaven’s sake, Wendy, call them!
  • Forget the stinging comments for now. You can always ask if they really meant those things when they are finally calmed down and a solution to the issue has been found. If you know you are valuable and doing right, then you don’t need to let them make you to think otherwise.

An Example of de-escalation

Here’s an example of how you might do this in regards to a scheduling issue:

I know that this is really frustrating for you. I can’t imagine trying to make the schedule of 3 children perfectly coincide each week! I have 2 possible alternatives that I can offer that week. It’s possible that we could switch your lesson time with Jesse that day or even do a Facetime lesson! Let me know which of these options works for you. [Notice I didn’t say, “let me know if either of these work” because then it seems like you have even more options to give if they say no.]

If nothing else, just “be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

I’d love to hear other ways you’ve discovered about how to de-escalate. It takes practice, but becomes easier as you do it regularly. But then again, I hope you don’t have to do it regularly! 🙂