Talk It Out: Dealing with a Tough Situation
Learn how to approach difficult conversations with fairness and professionalism
Meeting two professors for the first time, new grad student “Phoenix” explains that they’re nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. “Dr. Abe Foster” persists in ignoring this, despite reminders from “Dr. Deidre Mundy.”
Concerned that Phoenix will not feel welcome, Dr. Mundy wants to have a follow-up conversation with Dr. Foster, a senior member of her department. How should she proceed?
Earlier this year, Duke Faculty Advancement teamed up with Duke Learning & Organization Development to offer a workshop on engaging in difficult conversations. Using scenarios from Theater Delta, 50 faculty members practiced skills for handling personnel matters constructively, with fairness and professionalism. Here’s the first part of the scenario, followed by brief excerpts from the workshop.
Claudia Gunsch, Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement
“If we as a community let bad behavior go unnoticed, that really has an impact on the tone of how we shape the climate in that particular group. So it’s really on all of us to engage in these conversations and make sure that we promote the best environment for all.”
Joy Birmingham, Assistant Director of Leadership and Professional Development
“One of the things that happens in that split second when you realize, uh oh, I don’t agree with this person, is that you might think, I can’t say anything, this person is at a higher level than me. Or, this person is my peer—I might get really aggressive and say no, it’s my way or the highway. What we often fail to do, I think, is to say I can be both honest and professional. I can tell you exactly what I think without having to offend you.”
Abbas Benmamoun, Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement
“Whenever you have this kind of conversation, there are lots of things in play — for example, the power dynamics between the faculty. [In this scenario] we have the junior faculty and the senior faculty [who is] going to vote on her tenure…. Stick to the facts and stay focused on the main issue. With these difficult conversations, some parties may try to distract you from the main issue at stake — it may be relevant, but the focus should be on the student and how the student was treated in that conversation.”
Sherilynn Black, Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement
“I don’t like to have to adjudicate morality during difficult conversations. I like to keep it very much in the space of professionalism so that it doesn’t get too emotional. [In part two of this scenario] there was a lot of moralizing about why [Dr. Foster] should respect a colleague, when in fact we actually have standards that we all need to adhere to.”
How did Dr. Mundy do in her follow-up conversation with Dr. Foster? Watch the second part of the scenario, and see below for best practices and resources:
Best Practices for Dealing with Difficult Situations
Duke Faculty Advancement
- Access resources from the workshop, including additional scenarios (in Box folder, Duke login required).
Other Tips for Faculty
- Making the hiring process more equitable and effective
- Perspectives on promotion and tenure review
- Creating an equitable research and learning environment