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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

  • Maintain an open mind and keep the focus on the issue at hand. Spend time to meet and practice active listening.
  • While dealing with a problem, keep in mind all of the parties that are impacted by the issue and analyze the different facets of the problem.
  • Keep your immediate supervisor(s) informed and consult with them on a regular basis.
  • Remember that you are not alone. Seek out and use the expertise and resources available to you within your department, school and across campus.
  • Process is important. Follow and respect established departmental, school and university procedures and guidelines. Seek clarification about the process and guidelines if they are unclear to you.
  • Respect confidentiality, be tactful and share relevant information and documents only with the appropriate parties and offices.
  • Make sure that you follow up with all involved parties and that you follow through in a timely manner. It is important that the parties involved understand that the process/procedures are fair and that all individuals are treated with dignity and respect.
  • Ensure that you keep adequate records and documentation of all relevant communications, agreements, commitments and/or decisions.
  • If at all possible, communicate in person and only use email to follow up on conversations, summarize discussions or for documentation. Avoid delivering new information or trying to address difficult situations over email to avoid misreading tone or intent.
  • Try not to take complaints personally. Avoid making issues personal about yourself or other individuals. Focus on the behaviors and practices that are problematic and contrary to the values and policies of the unit and the university.
  • Remember that a problem left unattended can be corrosive. Ignoring a problem that negatively impacts others will likely not go away and will probably get worse and more destructive. Dealing with difficult problems early, effectively and fairly is critical to fostering a respectful, inclusive and thriving learning and research environment.

Caption for main image: Three characters in a fictional scenario by Theater Delta: Dr. Abe Foster, Phoenix and Dr. Deidre Mundy