Principals' capability in challenging conversations: the case of parental complaints

Viviane M.J. Robinson (Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand)
Deidre M. Le Fevre (Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Publication date: 10 May 2011



Positively engaging parents who have concerns about their children's schooling is a key part of effective educational leadership. The purpose of this paper is to use empirical research on complaint interactions and interpersonal effectiveness to develop and trial an assessment of principals' interpersonal effectiveness in challenging conversations with parents. The paper presents descriptive data about principals' level of skill in one such type of conversation.


A complaint scenario was written and an actor trained to play the role of the parent during a videotaped conversation with each of 30 newly appointed principals. The tapes were transcribed and assessed on six dimensions of interpersonal effectiveness. A code book was written which included definitions of each dimension, a five‐step progression on each dimension, coding rules and examples. The actor also provided ratings of the effectiveness of each principal.


The findings indicated that the principals were, on average, more skilled in advocating their own position than in deeply inquiring into and checking their understanding of the views of the parent. Many had difficulty respectfully challenging the parent's assumptions about the situation and reaching a shared understanding of what to do next.


The paper provides rarely obtained behavioural data about the interpersonal skills of school leaders and provides a strongly grounded theoretical framework for analysing these skills. Detailed suggestions are made about how further research can contribute to both the evaluation and development of the interpersonal skills required to achieve positive outcomes from challenging conversations.



Robinson, V. and Le Fevre, D. (2011), "Principals' capability in challenging conversations: the case of parental complaints", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 49 No. 3, pp. 227-255.

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