We’ve recently discussed some situations you might run into on your troop or pack committee where members have a difference of opinion and you, the committee chair, need to step in and help resolve it. What happens when one or more of your parents blindsides you with a gripe?
Parents who aren’t as involved in Scouting as you are sometimes don’t understand the program as well, and can see a unit working normally as being dysfunctional. Friction can also develop among parents, or even between boys, and the people “in charge” are looked to for a solution.
Frequently, these problems arise as the result of an incomplete understanding of Scouting’s mission, aims and methods. One of the most misunderstood, even at the Boy Scout level, is advancement. “Why isn’t my Jimmy getting to Second Class any faster?” is a typical complaint, or “How come you didn’t tell Billy that he needed to bring his handbook to the meeting?” Sometimes you’ll hear things like “Why can’t the pack go on a canoe trip?” or “The robotics club did a paintball outing – why can’t the troop do one?”
Often, these problems vanish once you stop taking a piecemeal approach to informing parents. Scouting’s different from almost every other youth program. A sports activity’s rules don’t go much further than the rules of the game, and most parents are more familiar with the rules of sports than the rules of the game of Scouting. A thorough orientation session for new parents is a must, explaining the program’s methods and expectations for both the parent and the Scout. These can be augmented with regular refreshers, either in formal parent meetings or informally, such as a “parent connection” column in the unit’s newsletter. While having a parent handbook is a good idea (not so much to establish “rules and regulations” as to provide a reference for parents on the program), don’t print a handbook and hand it to parents, expecting them to read every word!
Despite our best efforts at communication, though, conflicts will still arise. Fortunately, you can use many of the techniques we’ve covered for resolving conflicts on your committee. When this happens, remember that you are not the adversary; rather, you are a partner with the parents in making possible a positive Scouting experience for their sons. When encountering a parent with a grievance:
- Let the parent explain the situation and encourage them to do so as completely as possible.
- Get the whole picture, or as much of it as the parent can give you.
- Patiently listen to understand.
- Don’t interrupt – let them talk.
- Above all, remain calm.
- Show that you “feel their pain” – genuinely care about the issue and the person you’re talking with.
Once they’ve finished, show that you’ve heard what they had to say by repeating it back to them. This lets them know that you understood what they were telling you, and it helps you to get a firmer hold on the problem. Apologize for their trouble. Even if you feel you or the unit didn’t do anything wrong, the parent has a problem and it’s your problem now as well.
So now that you both understand the issue, what do you do?
You should figure out a course of action that gets them to an agreeable resolution. Is it a misunderstanding of BSA policy or an element of the program? Help them by showing them the provision in the handbook or guidebook that covers the situation. (This is why you have to know these things!) If it’s a unit policy, it might be a good idea to reconsider whether the policy is a good one or needs to be changed, especially if the issue has come up before. Often, unit procedures that once seemed like a good idea might be causing problems that weren’t thought of when it was put in place.
Sometimes, personality clashes develop between parents and unit leaders, particularly in Cub Scouts where parents are much more involved. If this happens, do as much fact-finding as you can from both parties independently. Don’t go to your den leader and say “Mrs. Goodman’s complaining again, and this time it’s about you.” Rather, ask the den leader if she’s had any issues with parents in her den, find out specific facts, and see if you can put them together. Confide in your den leader once you’ve made a clear connection, and work together to reach a solution to present to Mrs. Goodman.
Other helpful ideas include:
- Try changing your viewpoint – attempting to control others’ behavior doesn’t work, nor does trying to force them to see things your way.
- Focus on the other person’s needs, desires and fears. Think back to when you were a new parent and didn’t know better.
- Don’t react too quickly. Take a deep breath and contemplate your actions before engaging. Restating the issue helps to keep you from jumping to conclusions.
- Develop a support network with friends in other packs and troops (Roundtable is ideal for this!).
- Communicate directly – use “I” statements, like “I understand the problem is…” and “I believe we can resolve it by…”
- Ask powerful problem-solving questions. Try to get at the root of the issue, and ask for clarification on any details that are missing.
- Be careful about making assumptions about behavior. Work to understand the problem – listen to the words that are being said, not the way you hear them being spoken. But make sure your body language is supportive of your goal of reaching accord.
- Be clear about points where you agree. You’ll be surprised to find out that you’re both in agreement on 90 percent of the issue.
- Think and remain focused on the actual needs, obey the Scout Law, and remember – do what’s best for the boys. It’s not about you.
It may not seem logical, but conflict can actually help communication. When there is conflict, you have communication, so use it as a resource to solve a problem or get the parents to see your side.
Our next article in this series will consider how you can advocate your own ideas within your unit.
Previous articles in this series:
- Conflict management and the unit committee
- Helping your committee succeed, part 1 and part 2
- The committee chair: Primary responsibilities
- The new committee chair
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