Having Difficult Conversations

I would guess that 99% of the interpersonal issues that cause problems in laboratory environments are due to communication issues. The vast majority of these problems are due to the fact that many people in this world are conflict averse or avoidant and therefore refuse to deal with issues when they first arise. This allows the issue to escalate, expand, and lead to general dysfunction between people. It often starts small, but over time can turn into a huge deal.

I have found that the best way to avoid interpersonal issues is clear communication. This takes a lot of work and a great deal of self-awareness. Other people cannot read your mind in order to know that constantly borrowing your transformation solutions in the lab and using them up until they’re gone is driving you bananas. They may not realize that playing country music in the lab is making you want to take a hit out on Jason Aldean. They have no idea that hogging the centrifuge at all hours of the day is leading to resentment. These are the types of irritations that I experienced as a graduate student and a post-doc. All were resolved by a frank conversation about what was bothering me (and I framed it as my problem) and talking with the other person to come up with a solution together to address it. People made their own transformation solutions and stopped using mine, I accepted that country music was going to be played often in the lab and I brought in my own MP3 player and headphones to listen to my own music, and a booking sheet was developed for the centrifuge. When you have these conversations early, they aren’t a big deal.

As a PI, some of the conversations that I have to have with trainees and colleagues are more challenging and the stakes are often higher. Most commonly I have to talk to students about their research progress, writing, and professional development and offer constructive feedback. This is part of my job as an advisor and mentor and sometimes I have to deal with a performance problem. Doing this effectively and humanely is a skill that takes time to develop, but you do your students no favours by dancing around performance problems and not addressing them. Sometimes trainees do not have the skills or awareness to address interpersonal issues that they are having in the lab and it is my job to help them to do that; not to look the other way and allow resentment to fester and hope that the problem will go away. It is my job as a PI to manage my laboratory trainees and staff. I wasn’t trained as a manager, so of course this is going to be difficult at first. Difficult conversations are never pleasant, but with preparation they can go well and be productive and useful. I find it helpful to make a list of issues that I’d like to address and a bullet list of points that I want to communicate during the conversation. The other important skill to develop is the ability to listen to what the other person is saying. You may not have all of the information about a situation, or you might be working using false assumptions. I find that being tactful, professional, and honest goes a long way towards making these conversations go more smoothly.

In my job as a professor, here are a few examples of difficult conversations that I’ve had to have:

1) Informing a group of students that I was notifying the chair of my department and my dean that I suspected them of academic dishonesty. I also had to interview several students in that class in order to collect evidence and facts to support my initial suspicion. I was correct and then had to have 3 separate conversations with 3 of these students to outline the process and consequences.

2) Informing a graduate student that their progress in our M.Sc. program was insufficient. This involved transitioning the student out of our program after an honest assessment of their academic capabilities.

3) Informing a faculty colleague that their graduate student was constantly interrupting female faculty during committee meetings and asking whether they would like to communicate this as a problem to their student, or whether they wanted me to have that chat with the student instead.

I take notes during these conversations for my own records and I encourage the other person to do the same. I sometimes will also send a follow-up email to the person to document my understanding of what was discussed and agreed upon in the meeting if I suspect that my view point will be forgotten or disregarded. Depending on the nature of the difficult conversation, it may be helpful to have an impartial witness present if you suspect that the chat might turn volatile or abusive. It is also worth thinking about your personal safety if you think that the other party might respond inappropriately. It is usually appropriate to keep your office door open during these conversations in case you need to get assistance from another staff or faculty member.

I still dread having difficult conversations, but I have learned that they are necessary and most effective if done as soon as a problem is identified. Dealing with problems as soon as they arise greatly decreases the cumulative stress that the problem will cause you and frees up your mental energy for more useful pursuits.

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