Negotiating With the Principal

Focusing on the benefits of working together can help smooth the rough spots in your relationship with the principal.

by Darylen Cote


Few relationships you can forge in your role as a PTO leader will be as crucial as the one you have with your school’s principal. The principal can be an active ally, smoothing the way with faculty and staff, or your biggest roadblock, impeding your progress at every turn. What can you do when you conflict with the principal?

First, recognize that most often the conflict comes from the roles the parent group leader and the principal play rather than from their personalities. Once a clash has begun, it may degenerate or have an added layer of the personal, but it often starts because the principal sees his duties and the duties of the parent leader in one way, and the parent group leader sees the role of the principal and her own role in a different way. Sometimes the conflict seems inevitable.

For example, an issue that comes up frequently on the message boards involves control of the money that the parent group raises. From the principal’s viewpoint, he is accountable for every single thing that goes on in the school, from what gets taught to the quality of the teachers, including managing the budget. From the parent leader’s perspective the money that the group works hard to generate is theirs to spend on the priorities they identify. Do you see how those viewpoints might clash at some point?

What if the principal wants the parent group to use all of the money generated specifically for handheld computers for one grade level as an experiment, while the parent group wants to supplement supplies for each classroom teacher? If the principal sees the PTO as a tool for funding special projects and not as a separate group with its own view of educational needs and priorities, the temptation toward a dictatorial stance may be powerful. That’s especially true if the PTO falls under the tax-exempt umbrella of the school rather than having separate, documented status.

As several folks have pointed out on the discussion forum, having bylaws that clarify relationships and spell out procedures for spending money can prevent or resolve these conflicts. If bylaws aren’t there or are inadequate for your specific problem, you many need to negotiate a resolution to the issue. Does that mean giving in and going along with the principal just to keep the relationship friendly? No! Neither does it mean digging in and making the principal your adversary.

You know that you have a vested interest in making the relationship work. Well, so does the principal. When a principal puts his foot down, it kills involvement. Parent volunteers move on to other nonprofit organizations where their work is appreciated. Both sides lose.

Fortunately, there is another way. At the Harvard Negotiation Project, researchers call it principled negotiation or negotiation on the merits. It moves people away from entrenched positions and toward wiser outcomes that preserve amicable relationships.

Some Basic Negotiation

Four basic points comprise the method that researchers and authors Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton describe in their book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. They are:

  • People: Separate the people from the problem.
  • Interests: Focus on interests, not positions.
  • Options: Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do.
  • Criteria: Insist that the result be based on some objective standard.

The first point involves avoiding the trap of entangling people’s personalities or emotions in the issue. We are human, after all. Sometimes emotions get in the way of clear communication, especially if totally different perspectives are involved. Those emotions can blind us, causing us to lose objectivity and involve our egos instead.

Can you imagine how quickly labels and judgments about the other person can color thinking? How quickly would negotiation deteriorate if the principal in our situation labeled the PTO leader “short-sighted and ignorant”? Or if the parent group leader called the principal a “stubborn micromanager”?

Before real work can occur on the issue, personalities and emotions need to be put to one side. That side of things may need to be dealt with separately using methods appropriate to interpersonal conflicts. Or once the people have been separated from the problem, the interpersonal issues may disappear. The experience of working alongside someone, attacking a problem instead of each other, can help those individuals see each other in new ways.

A Broader Look

The next point involves looking for the underlying interests in the both positions. This step involves discussing what each party really wants, as opposed to the specific proposals or positions on the table. In the case we’ve been using, it seems obvious that both the principal and the PTO leader each want what they think is best for the children’s education.

There may be other interests in play as well. Perhaps the principal also wants the school to be on the cutting edge technologically, adding to the school’s reputation as a community asset. Maybe the parent group leader feels distributing assets equitably so that all children benefit from PTO activities is pivotal. Getting ideas on the table and then finding the underlying interests in common is crucial. Sometimes these are called “superordinate” or “overarching” goals.

Spread the word—schools thrive because of hard-working parent groups

The third step involves widening the vision of what is possible that may solve the problem and satisfy differing interests. Setting aside time for this step may not be easily worked into busy schedules. Who said this would be easy or quick? If the parties try to skip this step, they will probably fall back into the narrower original positions. The more options you can generate, the more you will have to choose from. Don’t censor any ideas. You are looking for options that move forward the interests you have in common and creatively reconcile differing interests.

In our example, a number of possibilities exist. The parent group might run a separate fundraiser to preserve its traditional practices. The group might assist the principal in researching foundation funding for classroom technology. Or the group and the principal might adopt another shared plan for how to spend money based on a combination of perceived needs.

The last step entails looking at all of the options, then choosing among them based on some objective criteria. Agreeing on criteria for choosing solutions avoids one party simply imposing its will on the other. It also means reasoning and being open to reason based on principles that you have identified. Those standards could be expert opinions, custom, the rules (bylaws!), laws applicable in the particular case or, in our example, even survey results. This way no one gives in and both can adopt what is fair.

Taking Action

All of these steps have to be worked through over and over as you go through the analysis of the problem, planning ideas for resolution and discussing the ramifications of each as you move toward agreement. It all takes time!

What if your principal isn’t interested in this kind of negotiation? What if the answer is still “my way or no way”? William Ury has expounded on the five steps of what he calls “breakthrough negotiation” in an article titled “Getting Past No: Negotiating with Difficult People” (in the American Management Association’s course book How to Manage Conflict in the Organization).

Ury calls the first step “going to the balcony.” It involves suspending your own emotions and controlling your own behavior so that you have time to think. You need to figure out your “best alternative to a negotiated agreement” (BATNA) at this point. Focus on what you want (underlying interests) and on what alternatives are there for you if your principal won’t negotiate. For example, it might be initiating a lawsuit if the principal tries to appropriate the money. But this is a BATNA you don’t want to use or even hint at right away. This is not about getting even; it is about getting what you want, and knowing what your bottom line options will be.

The next step recalls Stephen Covey’s rule from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Ury states that you must “step to their side.” Listening carefully, acknowledging and even agreeing whenever you can, helps the other person feel heard and tends to disarm hostility.

The third point is “Don’t reject....Reframe.” If you take whatever is said and cast it as an attempt to deal with the issues, you’ll get further than if you simply reject it. (“That’s not true!”) Instead, ask questions that get at the issues, like “Why is it that you want that particular item?” or “What if the group was to…” Ury says, “To change the game, change the frame.”

The fourth strategy in breakthrough negotiation is “build a golden bridge.” At this stage you try to make it as easy as possible to say yes to what you want. Instead of pushing, which will probably mean the other person pushing back, Ury says to “think of yourself as a mediator.” Incorporate the principal’s ideas and “make the outcome appear as a victory” for him.

The last step is “bring them to their senses, not their knees.” It is only at this point that you expose whatever your BATNA may be. Ury calls it the process of “educating” about what the consequences of refusing to negotiate may be. Rather than threatening, you might say something like, “I would hate to have to involve the superintendent (or school board) over this issue. That wouldn’t be good for either of us, and would leave everyone in worse position. Is that where you see this going?”

Go back to your other options and make sure they are still open as far as you are concerned. At the same time, reassure that you are still looking for a mutual resolution, not a “victory.” This is the trickiest part of “breakthrough negotiation” and should become unnecessary if other steps are followed.

Refine Your Skill

In short, negotiation is a skill that goes beyond taking a position and bargaining. When you and your principal don’t see eye to eye, use the steps of principled negotiation outlined above, and breakthrough negotiation when the other person doesn’t want to engage. The book Getting to Yes offers more in-depth discussion and is highly recommended. The more skilled you become at conflict resolution, the more smoothly you will be able to perform your role as a PTO leader.

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