Having Difficult Conversations

Chancellor Carey has asked the UAS CELT team to work on programs that deal with the impact of social media, and also to prepare you for difficult conversations. Last week I touched on social media. This week we will take a look at difficult conversations. Like last week, this post is only a very small piece of the larger puzzle, and is not intended to prepare you for all situations you may face.

Preparing for Difficult Conversations

Cartoon of two people with a number between then.  One is saying it's a 6, while the other says it's a 9.

Difficult conversations happen in the classroom, between faculty, staff, and administration, and also outside of school. I wanted to get started with a set of steps to help you prepare for difficult conversations. The following comes from Ashira Prossack, who is a coach, speaker, and journalist for Forbes magazine.

Be direct.

  • When having a difficult conversation, be direct and get to the point quickly.
  • Don’t give feedback sandwiches (say something nice; then critical feedback – what you actually want to say; then say something nice again)
  • Don’t give an excess of compliments. Feedback sandwiches and excess compliments will mask the point of the conversation and lessen its impact. Difficult conversations become even more difficult when the delivery is muddled.  
  • Dive right into the critique. Most of the time, the person you’re talking to knows that a critique is coming, so rather than dancing around the subject, just get to it.

Be specific.

  • Be honest and thorough with your feedback, and fully clarify why you’re having the conversation.
  • Offer as many concrete examples as possible so the person understands you’re not just pulling things out of thin air.
  • The more clarity you can provide, the better the critique will be received.

Plan out the conversation.

  • Don’t do this in the spur of the moment.
  • You want to think of what you’re going to say, as well as anticipate how the other person might react. Think of the questions they might ask and have answers prepared.
  • The more prepared you are, the easier it will be to stay even tempered and not get flustered, and therefore deliver a more solid critique.

Watch your language.

  • The actual words you use during the conversation matter. You must outline the critique and the reason you’re having the conversation, but don’t stop there.
  • You’ll also want to talk about the outcome you’d like to see.
  • Illustrating what a positive outcome looks like creates a goal that can be worked toward.

Offer a solution.

  • Nothing is worse than delivering a critique and leaving it just at that. You’ll want to clearly explain:
    • the reason for the conversation,
    • the specific critique, and
    • then offer suggestions to improve.

Manage your emotions.

Cartoon of a boy and girl yelling at each other
  • You want to speak in an even tone and keep it professional. Don’t let your emotions dictate your delivery.
  • If you get emotional, so will the other person. This is especially important when the conversation is with someone who you care greatly for or work closely with. In this situation, take a step back and remove the relationship from the equation.
  • It can help if you simply look at things from a fact based standpoint, and focus solely on that. When emotions start to take over, remind yourself that the more in control you are of your emotions, the better you’ll be able to deliver the message.

Be empathetic.

  • While your delivery of the message should be stoic, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t empathize. Think of how the other person will feel during the conversation, and allow them to process their emotions.
  • If you see they’re really struggling with what you’ve said, pause for a minute while they collect themselves.
  • Clearly explain why you’re having the conversation to help them fully understand where you’re coming from.
  • If they’re really taking the news poorly, remind them that you’re delivering this critique to make them better, and you want to see them succeed.

Allow the other person to ask questions.

  • Questions serve a double purpose. Asking questions helps the other person process what’s happened, and it allows you to clarify and solidify details of the conversation.
  • If you aren’t sure that the other person fully comprehended the conversation, ask clarifying questions to check their understanding.

Next time you have to have a difficult conversation, keep these points in mind to ensure that it’s productive and well received.

Conflict Resolution

A situation we frequently find ourselves in is being in the middle of a conflict between people with opposite viewpoints. I think many of us are feeling this right now, and often we tend to try and pick a side, but is this the best solution? What else can we do?

Graph showing conflict resolution with axis being concern for others and concern for self.

Interpersonal conflict has been defined as:

“An expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from the other party in achieving their goals.”

I bet that sounds familiar to all of us!

Here are five strategies for dealing with conflict:

  1. Compete or Fight – This is the classic win/lose situation, where the strength and power of one person wins the conflict.
    • It has its place, but anyone using it needs to be aware that it will create a loser and, if that loser has no outlet for expressing their concerns, then it will lead to bad feelings. This strategy is probably best only used where little or no further contact is necessary between the individuals or groups concerned.
  2. Collaboration – This is the ideal outcome: a win/win situation.
    • However, it requires input of time from those involved to work through the difficulties, and find a way to solve the problem that is agreeable to all. This may be hard work, especially if the positions have already become entrenched, but it is also likely to be the best possible starting point early in a conflict situation.
  3. Compromise or Negotiation – This is likely to result in a better result than win/lose, but it’s not quite win/win. You could call it a no-score draw.
    • Both parties give up something in favor of an agreed mid-point solution. This effectively results in a solution that pleases nobody very much, but hopefully will not offend or upset anyone too much. It takes less time than collaboration, but is likely to result in less commitment to the outcome because it is nobody’s preferred option.
  4. Denial or Avoidance – This is where everyone pretends there is no problem.
    • This strategy is used surprisingly often and can be quite effective. It is particularly helpful if those in conflict need time to ‘cool down’ before any discussion, or if the conflict is unimportant and will simply resolve itself given time.
    • However, it cannot be used if the conflict won’t just die down. Under these circumstances, using this strategy will create a lose/lose situation: there will still be bad feeling, but no clearing the air through discussion. It results, in Transactional Analysis terms, in ‘I’m not OK, you’re not OK’. This can result in serious stress for those involved.
  5. Smoothing Over the Problem – On the surface, harmony is maintained but, underneath, there is still conflict.
    • This is similar to the situation above, except that one person is probably OK with this smoothing, while the other remains in conflict, creating a win/lose situation again. It can work where preserving a relationship is more important than dealing with the conflict right now. It is, however, not very useful if one person, or others outside the conflict, feel that the situation must be resolved.

Are we in the Revenge Business?

As we enter 2021, we may be trying to claim victory over the conflicts we’ve been dealing with for years. I wanted you to see this 2 minute clip from actor Mandy Patinkin, who played Inigo Montoya in Rob Reiner’s 1987 film The Princess Bride.

I believe that Mandy Patinkin makes a good point, and that we need to sit down, take a deep breath or three, and think about where we want to be. It’s time to get out of the “revenge business” and start having the difficult conversations.

I want to close by sharing a statement by Chancellor Carey that was sent the morning after the January 6th riot at the Capital.

Photo of UAS Chancellor Karen Carey

“The events of January 6, 2021 will be examined in the following days, weeks, and perhaps decades as a part of history.  As a university, UAS will engage as part of the fabric of our community and nation, recognizing freedom of speech, academic freedom, and respect for one another as part of civil discourse.  We will stand by our values of excellence in teaching and community engagement, and collaboration and understanding.  Violence, or any threat of violence, is never the answer.”

I want to stress again, that this is the tip of a very, very large iceberg, and this post only scratches the surface. Stay tuned for more training by the CELT team. Have a great weekend, “embrace your fellow human beings,” and as always, thank you for reading the Faculty Learning Corner.

Conflict Resolution and Mediation. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/conflict-and-mediation.html

Prossack, A. (2020, September 09). How To Have Difficult Conversations At Work. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashiraprossack1/2018/10/28/how-to-have-difficult-conversations-at-work/?sh=7a09bbc710b7

UAS Chancellors Office. (2021, January 7). A Message from UAS Chancellor Karen Carey [E-mail].