Using humour to defuse tension

I hate conflict.

Sure, healthy conflict gets us places. If we successfully resolve the conflict, all relationships are made stronger.

But that doesn’t make it any easier to face.

Conflict is always around the corner when you are a teacher: students, don’t like their grades or they don’t think it’s fair they are penalized for late assignments or they don’t like all the homework you are giving them or they take personally your criticism of their work.

I had to confront this last situation a few days ago. One of my students submitted an assignment late and then blamed it on her peer tutor, claiming the tutor had been editing her work and had handed it back late. Obviously, the work had been done too last-minute.

As a business communications teacher, it’s my job to prepare students for the real world. This is why I tell them that I expect them to operate in my class as if they are in the office. This means that assignments must be handed in on time—no excuses—or students receive a zero. At the same time, I expect all communications with me to be conducted on a professional level.

So when I received the email from this student claiming her work was late because of her tutor and the message contained eight spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors in about 24 words (that’s one error per every three words), I did not accept her reasons for tardiness and said we needed to talk. I requested a meeting with the tutor—because blaming one’s student tutor is unacceptable—and I pointed out her eight errors, reminding her of the necessity to communicate professionally with me. I also told her that I would not accept such error-riddled emails in the future.

If it’s possible for an email to explode, the email she sent back to me probably could have done so. She exclaimed that she was “effended” and she was in a hurry and that students should be allowed to send emails with “one or two” errors. She also deflected my request to speak with her tutor.

I was speechless and perturbed. My gut reaction was to bite back, to reject her late assignment as a result of her haughty reply and to put her in her place.

But I decided on another tactic. I didn’t respond to her email (I was going to keep my word and not respond to error-filled emails—this one was also filled with mistakes). Instead of reacting with indignation, I approached the student after class with a smile and apologized for hurting her feelings.

Instantly, this student, who had been prepared to fight for what she believed were her rights, softened. It was the first time I’d seen this young woman relax in 10 weeks of classes. Then I asked her for details of exactly what had happened with her tutor and assured her that I was not seeking to assign blame but to prevent this situation from occurring again.

After sorting out the details, I decided to take her assignment (which may have been only a few minutes late), but said I would not accept this excuse in the future. Then we turned to the matter of the messy email. I reminded her of my professional communications policy, which we had reviewed in two weeks of classes. I also reminded her that we all have strengths and weaknesses and that, if hers was writing, then she might just have to work a little harder than others to deliver clean emails. I urged her to acknowledge her challenges and to meet them head on. I gave her some tips for avoiding email writing errors.

The student said she would reread my remarks on her messy email and try to determine where she had erred. We parted in agreement and with the clear understanding that future emails would be cleaner and edited more thoroughly and that late assignments could not be blamed on tutors.

Some teachers might argue that this student is a bully and should have been dealt with accordingly. Others would say she was rude in her email and disrespectful. I might agree with you, but what harm was there in showing some humour and compassion while reinforcing expectations and rules for the future?

Tell me what you think. Would you have done differently?

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About teachingteacher

Business communications instructor, journalist, corporate communications writer and media trainer ... and Masters Candidate M.Ad.Ed.
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2 Responses to Using humour to defuse tension

  1. Melanie Steers says:

    Frank – excellent example of using a different approach to get a different response. You created an environment where she did not have to be defensive. My guess is that she was better able to “take in” your feedback with this approach

    • Yes, I think you are right, Melanie. I recently had students provide feedback (anonymous) about the class and I received a very interesting comment that I think was from her. I won’t reveal it’s contents, but the comment assured me that I had tackled this issue in the most effective manner.

      Thanks for your note.

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