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Handling Difficult Conversations

Written by Carolina L. Gonzalez-Berrios


As a graduate student, I have realized the lack of an essential ingredient that is not taught to many of us: having and handling a difficult conversation with others (peers, supervisor, principal investigator, etc.).


Illustration by: Amanda Buzzard

In fact, what is a difficult conversation and what does it entail? It is often defined as a situation that has become uncomfortable, needs to be discussed, but we are worried about what other parties thoughts and feelings towards it may be. In other words, having this conversation is one where emotions run high. Some examples of what a difficult conversation is, but is not limited to: sexual harassment, sexism, homophobia, racism, microaggression and the behaviors that they entail.


In my experience, I found that it is not a simple task to have a difficult conversation. This was because the other person found that it was a cultural norm to oppress women by engaging in microaggressions over any task. Which meant that I found having a difficult conversation both nerve-wracking and more than anything, intimidating.


Still, why do we feel that way? Why do we lack such confidence to say what needs to be said? It may have something to do with not knowing where to start, or it may be due to not knowing what to say that seems appropriate. In spite of this, it is truly necessary to have difficult conversations because they promote a healthy work environment not only for you but for others.


Here are some tips to prepare and conduct a difficult conversation:


Write your thoughts down

Writing an outline or a verbal recording of how and what you want to say, helps in the process of organizing your thoughts and practicing it.


Put yourself in their shoes

It may be difficult to see what the other person’s opinion and will require effort from your part. A conversation with either a close friend, fellow grad student or counselor might benefit you by seeing the situation from a different perspective.


Set a date

When you set a date and time, you will be less likely to deviate from your plan of having the conversation. It commits you and that other person to sit down and talk. Nevertheless, have this conversation when you have had the time to analyze the situation and are certainly not have your emotions involved in it. P.S. Do it somewhere in private!


Be objective

Adding emotion into the conversation may take away from making rational decisions. This is often referred to as the “fight or flight mode”. Try to breathe or pause if the conversation gets intense. Remember, you’ve got this!


Be concise and state the facts

Believe it or not, less is more. When we overflow someone with too much information you might lose the person's interest. Moreover, staying true to the facts adds credibility. How can you do this? By writing down dates, times, people involved and where it took place in a diary.


Listen and ask

Leave space for others to comment on. Also, integrate being an active listener. This means we listen carefully to what is being said and you either: repeat it in your own words and/or reflect on what is said and ask questions. An example of this is: “Is what you’re trying to say…?” or “Do you mean to say…?” This provides feedback on what the other person is trying to communicate: is it effective or does clarification need to take place?


Illustration by: Davide Bonazzi

Do not offer a solution

Often we want a specific solution. However, we need to consider what others would be willing to do in order to solve the situation. If no agreement is reached between you and the other person then others (human resources, mediators, superiors, etc.) might need to become involved.


Be flexible

We might not obtain the solution that we envisioned but it should at the very least make the workplace a healthier environment. Give it a chance, you might be surprised in a good way.


Next steps

Try to evaluate how things are after having a difficult conversation. Have things changed? If not, seek guidance from a superior or others such as human resources in your workplace.


If there is a piece of advice that I can share is that having difficult conversations are important and are always worth going through.


Remember, the objective of having a difficult conversation is to promote a healthier work environment where it does not assume or expect things from others that were not discussed.


As a result, you have found the courage to speak up for yourself, but also set boundaries for others to understand what you consider acceptable behavior.

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