Difficult conversations are inevitable in any organization. Understanding how they arise and how they play out can help minimize the disruption without avoiding the issue or alienating those involved. The way an academic leader handles a difficult conversation can have a major effect on how the issue gets resolved.

In an interview with Academic Leader, Gail Whitelaw, director of Ohio State University’s speech-language hearing clinic, offered her recommendations for managing these conversations.

  1. Manage emotions—It’s important to acknowledge emotions and then to view them in a somewhat detached manner, saying things such as “You’ve put your anger on the table. We understand that you’re angry. That’s a valid emotion for this situation. But rehashing it doesn’t move us forward. . . . How do we get past the emotion and get to the meat of the subject?” Whitelaw says.
  2. Know that history can affect the present—Emotions that come out during difficult conversations may be the result of previous interactions. “People tend to have very set ways of relating to each other. You have a history, and it’s a real challenge to change that history,” Whitelaw says.
  3. Be aware of the imbalance of power—Junior faculty may be reluctant to engage in certain conversations for fear of offending someone who may one day serve on their tenure committee “I think we tend to let people who speak with authority be the authority or let people who yell the loudest be heard,” Whitelaw says. She recommends making an extra effort to enable the more reserved faculty members to be heard.
  4. Form a problem-solving partnership—The goal of this partnership is to come to a resolution. “I also think good leadership in a university setting is talking about what’s important for the greater good. You and I may have a conversation in which you’re lobbying for one area of research and I’m lobbying for another area. We need to understand each other, see common ground, and then we’ll be able to more effectively [answer the question] ‘How do we [resolve this] in a way that works for everybody?’ Maybe there’s a way to make both people whole or at least get their feelings about the situation heard,” Whitelaw says.
  5. Acknowledge that you may have incomplete or inaccurate information—People’s perceptions of a situation can be quite different, and listening to another’s perspective can be enlightening. The differences between individuals might also indicate the need for more information. In these situations it might be useful to seek input from others or to compile more information to come up with a plan, Whitelaw says.
  6. Be tactful and respectful—“We have to be respectful, but that doesn’t mean that someone is not going to be hurt in the process. We have to remember that self-image and self-esteem are going to come into play,” Whitelaw says. She recommends focusing on the issues rather than on the individuals involved.
  7. Remember the organization’s core values—“I think it’s important for whoever is leading the conversation to say, ‘We have some flexibility, but these are the core values of our university. These are the core values of our department. And these are nonnegotiable.’ I think putting the nonnegotiables on the table is really important,” Whitelaw says. “If you want to do clinical-based research and you’re at a university that does a lot of bench research and that’s what you’re going to be graded on, you need to know that. There are going to be a lot of difficult conversations if you don’t know that that’s the road to tenure for you.”

Reprinted from “Managing Difficult Conversations” Academic Leader 29,3 (2013): 2,5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.