Difficult Conversations: Salve for Wounds in Our Organizations


I am not sure why the idea came to my mind this morning, but for some reason I had this vivid memory of a small, stinky, oily Tupperware container my father kept with him when we went out hunting with our dogs when I was a kid.  In it, as I was told, was “salve”.

Wikipedia states, “Like aloe vera, a drawing salve is a salve used to help treat various minor skin problems such as sebaceous cystsboilsingrown toenails and splinters. It is sometimes known as Black Ointment, or Ichthyol Salve. The main ingredients are often ichthammolphenyl alcohol, or arnica montana, and several familiar herbs such as echinacea or calendula”.

I have no idea where he got it, what was in it, or even when it was used, but it appeared to me to be the most disgusting stuff on the planet.  Looking back I can only imagine it to be a mixture of mink oil, iodine, merthiolate, Vick’s vapor rub, cow dung and a little spit.  In short it was smelly and had the consistency of congealed gelatinous pureed liver. I also imagine that if one were to apply the stuff upon a wound it would either kill you or make you a whole lot better with no in-between.

As one moves through the actions of leadership in our schools wounds appear on the surface of our organizations. These wounds will fester and infect the entire organization if not tended.  This has been one of the hardest learned lessons over the years working in schools I have learned.  The truth is plain and simple:  There is not a single school leader who likes to address difficult conversations. These difficult conversations are the wounds that need dressing in our world in schools, and if left to be discussed at a later time, they fester, rot, stink, and infect the entire organization.

Like my father’s dog salve, the salve to aid in the healing wounds in our organization includes:


  • Be fully honest…  While I wouldn’t say that one should be brutal about the issues at hand, but I do think that a “matter-of-fact” approach is the best way to move the ideas forward.  In short, don’t mince words.  Be fully honest and don’t sugar coat the facts.
  • Be present…  Be both physically and personally present in the conversation.  The individual receiving the “salve” should feel like you are there to make sure that they fully understand your concerns or your requests.  This isn’t the time for a quick in and out of the office conversation.
  • Be open…  Always be willing to accept further information and always be willing to see the issue from another point of view.  Be open to changing your mind or your approach to addressing the issue.
  • Focus… On the big picture and on the mission of the organization.
  • Make it personal… but don’t take it personally. Dan Pink notes that effectiveness of work in individuals will increase if they feel a personal connection to the work.  Help the individuals who are subject of the conversation understand the personal concern of your and of theirs.
  • Make it timely…  As I stated above the longer the wound exists, the worse it gets. In schools wounds create mistrust, rumormongering, lack of respect for others, and it damages children.
  • Be prepared to follow-up…  Sometimes wounds need to be redressed, as do issues and concerns. Any good salve for our organizations should include the intention or attention to the following up.
  • Be fearless… You will be like the rest of us—nervous, unsure and even reticent. You must be fearless though. This means you must be fully sure (100%) that you are doing the right thing.  If you have that gut level assurance, you will have no trouble finding that courage.

Like my father’s dog salve, theses conversations stink though.  At the end of the day, they are unpleasant, they are the black-hole of time, and they suck the energy out of you for a while.  In short, be sure to take care of your mental health as well, and try to find some time to laugh, exercise and sleep too.  In short.. minimize the “difficult” in the difficult conversations.


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