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The ability to have difficult conversations is important for career success, productivity and relationships in almost every field, and higher education is no exception. However, despite the need to have these conversations, the idea of addressing sensitive issues can be scary. This article provides strategies for having difficult conversations and gives example scripts.

Before we begin, let’s make a few assumptions. First, let’s assume that most problems are borne out of mistakes, oversight and miscommunication versus an intentional effort to harm you. Yes, sabotage is a real concept. For the purposes of this piece, we’ll assume that true cases of professional sabotage are rare.

Always Ask Questions

When there’s a misunderstanding (e.g., a missed deadline), resist the urge to make assumptions and find blame. Instead, ask open-ended questions (those that can’t be answered with a yes or no). Asking questions will help you get the facts, hear the other person’s point of view and come to a solution together. For example, consider the following email sent to a colleague:

Dear X:

I have in my notes that you would have the analysis to me by Monday at 12 noon. It’s Tuesday afternoon and I’m concerned that I may not have enough time to properly complete the report. It’s due Friday morning and the analysis is an important piece. Is there an unexpected challenge with the analysis? Please let me know if you need additional information from me. Thank you in advance for your time and attention.

To some, this email will sound accusatory. It has the potential to make the reader defensive. Additionally, the only question asked -- Is there an unexpected challenge with the analysis? -- is closed-ended. The goal of asking questions is to open up the conversation. Keeping that in mind, how you would rewrite this email?

Medium Matters

Sensitive conversations are best discussed in person. If a face-to-face conversation isn’t possible, then a telephone or Skype call is the next best option. Email is not good for emotionally charged issues. With email, tone and emotions are hard to communicate. As a result, your words can be misinterpreted. Additionally, emails are not private and can be forwarded. Never send emails when you’re upset. Instead, give yourself at least 24 hours to respond calmly and professionally.

Saying no

Sometimes saying no to a project is the best way to avoid being overwhelmed, overcommitted and spreading yourself too thin. Yes, power dynamics are real. You may not always have the choice or authority to decide what type of work you will do. There are, however, approaches such as the “Yes, but” and “Choose” options to help you reframe situations where you are facing unrealistic expectations.

Script 1

“Thank you for thinking of me. This sounds like a wonderful opportunity, however, my plate is full with teaching and mentoring. I’m afraid that I won’t have enough time to do another project justice. Please keep me in mind for future projects and let me know if I can be helpful in other ways.”

Optional addition: “John Doe has expertise in that area and may be interested. I’m happy to provide his contact information. I should have more time after June 1 if you haven’t found anyone and want to touch base.”

Script 2

“Thank you for inviting me to join the JANE study team as a collaborator. I’m interested, but need a better understanding of what will be required of me. How do you envision me being involved and how much time do you estimate it will require each week or month?”

Script 3 (if the requester is your boss or collaborator)

“Yes, I believe I can do that, but it will have an impact on your other project that I’m working on. Though I don’t know for sure, my best guess is that it will delay the other project by around  weeks. Will that work for you? Which project should be the priority?”

On Feelings

There are mixed opinions about how and when you should address feelings in the workplace. Some argue that unexpressed feelings have the potential to harbor resentment and anger, so it’s often best to discuss them openly. If you chose to do so, start these conversations with “I feel” statements. With “I feel” statements, the listener is less likely to feel attacked because you’re focusing on your own perspective. It’s also helpful to express the full spectrum of feelings.

For example, instead of saying “You’re driving me crazy!” you may opt to say:

“When you ask about my tenure evaluation, I feel a couple of things. I feel angry because I’ve asked you not to bring it up and you do it anyway. At the same time, part of me is appreciative and reassured that things will be OK. It means a lot that to me that you care.”

When Having a Conversation Doesn’t Makes Sense

Keep in mind that a difficult conversation isn’t always worth having. Ask yourself these questions before deciding to raise an issue:

  • Is the real conflict inside of me?
  • Is there a better way to address the issue (e.g., behavior change)?
  • Why am I having this conversation and what do I hope to accomplish?

Final Tips

  1. Prepare for difficult conversations in advance. You may want to write notes for yourself or create a script to help you stay focused.
  2. Ask for advice from a trusted friend or colleague about how to approach the conversation.
  3. Focus on solutions, not blame.
  4. Remember, you are not obligated to give a response to anyone on demand [this goes for both your personal and professional life] regardless of the power structure. It’s okay to say, “I need a moment to process what you’re saying. Let’s schedule a time to talk and discuss this further.”

This article was based on the following books:

  1. The Young Professional's Survival Guide: From Cab Fares to Moral Snares by C. K. Gunsalus (2012)
  2. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen (2010)
  3. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler (2011)

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