Difficult piano parent situations: What piano teachers can learn from flight attendants

When an irate passenger first confronts a flight attendant, the attendant will often ask, “May I get you a glass of water?”

An airplane flight is a unique situation. Not only is the airplane cabin under pressure, but sometimes passengers almost snap under personal pressures and lose their cool. They’ll act out in ways that are stressful to other passengers and the crew.

To maintain equilibrium for all, the flight attendant must quickly engage people skills and professionalism. The goal is to restore calm.

There are times when piano teachers are contacted by studio parents who are upset. If you belong to online piano teacher discussion groups, you’ve likely read about many real-life examples.

Teachers want to approach studio parents professionally while maintaining integrity. What’s more, you want to be able to uphold your best business practices and stand up for the principles which guide your studio policies.

The flight attendant’s Glass of Water strategy is a distraction technique. It accomplishes several things. Keep reading to find out how this idea can be adapted for situations in your piano studio.

1. Acknowledgement

First, by offering the disruptive passenger a glass of water, the attendant is acknowledging a need. Acknowledgment is the first step to calming the situation.

Sometimes it’s difficult to acknowledge someone who is acting out.

Perhaps you are already operating under other pressures. Likely the studio parent is also dealing with multiple pressures, most of which have nothing to do with piano lessons.

I get the sense that the world right now is in a stage of widespread suffering. People feel unheard, isolated, disengaged and filled with worry that the pressures will become too great to handle.

If you are contacted by a parent who is already feeling pressurized, and you, too, are feeling pressed on all sides, chances are the interaction between you won’t go well.

The reason you are here reading this is because you want to handle yourself well. You want to remain calm in the face of upset, like a level-headed flight attendant.

Several years ago I received a phone call from a piano mom who was upset about something. Without getting caught up in her tone, I simply repeated, “So, you’re saying…” and I copied back to her what she’d said.

As she spoke her next words, I could hear her anger slowly deflate.

She felt heard. Acknowledged.

We were then able to have a conversation about the topic.

Back up to the moment when she dialled the phone. She was likely feeling triggered from a time when something had mattered to her but she wasn’t heard. She now feared that she might experience the same. So, to protect herself and to make sure the past wrong didn’t happen again, her anger (the protector of fear) showed up.

Likely when you need to respond to a piano parent about a difficult topic, you, yourself, have a measure of fear. Maybe you fear that you won’t be respected.

All of this preemptive fear has the potential to charge the interaction with anger.

Before we go too far, let’s take a deep breath and remember that the first step to acting with professionalism is simply to acknowledge what has been said to you.

  • However the parent contacts you, get back with something like, “Let me understand. You’re saying…[insert their words here].”
  • Notice that you’re neither agreeing nor disagreeing. You’re only repeating what they’ve said because you’re confirming that you’ve heard them correctly.
  • This neutral tone has great potential to begin to restore equilibrium.

2. Time Out

The second thing accomplished by the flight attendant’s Glass of Water strategy is that it allows for time apart. As the attendant leaves the passenger to retrieve the water, it buys time.

A time out is a very powerful tool in restoring calm. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is released into your system in great quantities when you are faced with stress. Calmly removing yourself from the stressful person, and allowing them time as well, can allow both of you to regain a better internal balance.

When a piano parent is upset, how can you do this? That will depend on how they contact you. Even if you’re not busy, create a reason to buy you both time.

  • Text: In your reply, repeat what they’ve said, and then say “I’m just on my way to an appointment. But could I get back to you on this? Is there a time tomorrow morning that we could chat on the phone?” It isn’t recommended to carry on professional conversations with piano parents on Messenger or other social media private message platforms, but if you do, the same advice applies.
  • Email: In your reply, repeat what they’ve said then add, “I’m quite busy for the rest of the day, but I really want to work through this with you. Is there a time tomorrow morning you’d be available for a phone call?”
  • Phone: Repeat what they say to make sure they know you’ve heard them. Then disengage from the conversation. “I’m on my way to a meeting right now, but I’ve written down what you’ve told me. Is there a time tomorrow morning you’d be able to talk about this?”

Notice that each immediate reply is on the device on which they’ve contacted you, but you’re pushing the conversation to the phone. That’s because the phone is the most effective medium to have a conversation about a difficult topic, because your tone of voice will be key.

You’re delaying the real conversation until the following day. Remember, taking time out has a tendency to reduce the overall stress of the situation.

In the meantime, you’ll be able to ponder your approach or perhaps post online to ask for advice from others.

3. Leading your client to water

In the third phase, it’s after the moment of separation and cooling off when the attendant takes time to listen to the passenger’s complaint in full.

And by the time they’ve taken their first sip, the airline passenger’s stress is most likely already lowered. Lowering the stress improves the quality of the conversation to follow.

Similarly, by the time you speak the next day with your piano client, there’s a chance you’ve both gained some equilibrium. One thing is sure, you’ll be able to discuss the topic in a more professional manner.

Most people today shy away from phone conversations, preferring less personal (and easier) text or messaging services. However, you are a professional in business who now has a difficult situation to work through with a client. If your doctor needed to have a serious conversation with you, would you want to hear it in a text, or over the phone? In this case, YOU are the professional. Use the phone.

Prior to offering your solution, invite your piano parent to repeat their concern.

Listen and don’t interrupt, no matter how upsetting their problem is or how upset they are.

Ask clarifying questions, to gain insight into what they’re actually trying to say.

If you’re not sure how to respond, let them know that you appreciate them letting you know and you’ll need a little more time to think.

One of the biggest reasons you might struggle with difficult situations is that you may never have seen good boundary-setting in action. Chances are we’ve all witnessed one party who dominates and gets their way through yelling or mean behaviour, and the other party who caves in to keep a measure of peace, but at great personal cost and sacrifice.

We suspect that there’s a middle ground, a way to be professional and set a boundary on our studio policies, yet we aren’t sure how.

First, you are the professional, and may operate your business on your terms. For the sake of your wellbeing, it is best to have clear policies set in place to preserve the quality of your service to all of your clients. The flight attendant must consider the wellbeing of all of the passengers, not just the irate one.

Just because a parent is being overly aggressive, assertive, angry or bossy doesn’t make their request or point right or reasonable, or even doable.

The best way to assert yourself while asking someone to concede to you is to acknowledge their concern.

As you reply to them, hear and understand them, but you are under no obligation to agree with them, or to do what they ask. Does the flight attendant simply give in to the angry passenger?

It will be necessary for you to set down a boundary. This may feel difficult. Keep your tone of voice even. Let your piano parent know that you’ll do what you can but that there are limits on what you are able to do.

Then, it is advisable to reply to their request with the words “able” and “not able” — it’s not a matter of whether you can or cannot, it’s a matter of what you are able to do professionally.

4. To land the plane?

In rare instances, flight attendants are not able to bring the difficult situation to a calm resolution. There is a protocol in which the plane will be landed and the passenger removed.

If you ask online for help from other piano teachers, some will recommend that you outright fire the family from your studio. This would be akin to kicking off the irate passenger.

But this isn’t usually necessary and should be a last resort only if a prolonged attempt to calm the situation does not work.

It concerns me a little when some piano teachers jump so quickly to the idea of “firing” the piano parent. It is my hope that you now see that between the two extremes–caving in and submitting to every request or letting the parents go–there is a middle, reasonable way.

It is possible to engage with your clients with an approach that is calm, measured and level-headed. Like offering water to a difficult airline passenger, you can buy time and employ clever strategies to guide the conversation to a path that is productive.

Do you like this post and want more? In the side menu click “follow” to get notifications of my posts in your inbox.

I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching! ❤

Rebekah Maxner, composer, blogger, piano teacher. Follow my blog for great tips!

Video of the Week

Zigzag Rag (Elementary, Prep B) is an introductory ragtime solo piano piece. It features syncopations and a steady open chord bass (broken fifths). The notes that zigzag from RH to LH help shape the sound. It’s challenging and fun! Levels: US, Elementary. AMEB, Junior/Preparatory. ABRSM — . RCM, Prep B. Available as the studio-licensed Zigzag Rag eSheet!

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