From the Science Student Council

Navigating uncomfortable conversations

Considerations for dealing with professional disagreements.

By Noreen Watson

As graduate students, we are bound to find ourselves in uncomfortable interpersonal situations at some point during our graduate careers — with faculty members or other students. Perhaps you have received feedback that you do not agree with. Perhaps there is confusion about order of authorship. Perhaps you are thinking about changing advisors. The list of quandaries and disagreements can go on. These situations can be difficult to navigate for all parties involved and can escalate, causing additional problems or ending in a stalemate when not handled properly. However, confrontation does not have to be unpleasant for either party; in fact, it could lead to a more enjoyable and mutually beneficial relationship. Here, are a number of ways that you can facilitate these situations in order to open the lines of fruitful communication.

A priori

There are a number of things that can impede progress during difficult situations that can be avoided (or at least watched out for). Many difficult situations are accompanied by negative emotions such as anger, fear or worry. As a result, it is not uncommon for defenses to go up and communication to break down. Therefore, try to ensure that a discussion is scheduled in advance; this will give both parties time to organize their thoughts and approach the conversation in a calm manner. Meanwhile, take time to prepare for the conversation in a way that ensures your ability to concisely articulate your concerns and your goal. Consulting with others before deciding to bring up a particular issue might be worthwhile as well. Doing so can help you develop a more objective stance and perhaps see things from a perspective you have not yet considered. This preparation can help facilitate the conversation and keep it on track toward that goal. 

Listen, communicate and problem solve

At minimum, there are two sides to every story. As a result, it is important that you not make assumptions about someone else's line of thinking or intentions. During the conversation, allow the other person ample time to talk and actively listen to him or her — genuinely make an effort to understand his or her point of view and acknowledge it. Here, it is also important to let the other person talk without interruption. This can be difficult if you do not agree with what the person is saying, or you feel offended, misunderstood, frustrated, etc. If this is the case, a few deep breaths can be your best friend.

When you are talking, try to avoid becoming defensive or placing blame on the other person. Instead, try to focus on using "I-statements." For example, saying, "I guess I felt somewhat confused after our last meeting" can come across much different than, “What you said last time was confusing,” which could be taken as accusatory. In fact, it can also be extremely helpful to acknowledge how you may have contributed to the situation as well.

Also, be willing to compromise and make suggestions for possible solutions. If you approach a meeting merely with a list of complaints, the discussion may seem more like an attack on the other person. For example, "There are probably a lot of ways that the group could incorporate more didactic training…maybe doing student presentations?" is likely to be received much better than blurting out, "This class would be better if you included more didactics." Overall, entering meetings under a collaborative mindset, versus an accusatory one, will show that you are willing to work together to problem-solve and will likely yield more productive discussions.

There are many ways to approach difficult conversations that can assuage potential tension and foster productive communication — these are just a few. Although not all problems or conflicts need to be addressed so directly, certain conversations should not be avoided solely because they may feel uncomfortable. Avoiding some issues may be more detrimental in the long run (e.g., never expressing dissatisfaction with your advisor and feeling the need to "suffer" for the next four years). Additionally, it is also highly likely that we are overestimating just how uncomfortable the discussion will be and may be surprised at how well things work out. 

Noreen Watson is the health psychology representative on the APA Student Science Council. She is a doctoral student at Texas Tech University.