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Engaging in Effective Conversations When the Stakes Are High

When you have important issues to discuss with faculty or colleagues, do you choose email? Text? Phone? Or do you schedule an in-person meeting?

It depends, right? How safe do you feel? How much detail needs to be conveyed and confirmed? Is it a small clarification or a bigger conceptual issue? Is there likely to be disagreement? As a society, we are having fewer and fewer in-person conversations and perhaps over-relying on electronics, opening ourselves up to further conflicts or misunderstandings, and perhaps missing an opportunity to practice professional dialogue.

As graduate students, you know that much of your success in your program is dependent upon the relationships that you build, and we appreciate that much can be at stake.
Generally speaking, in-person communication is key where you want to improve communication or build an ongoing relationship. Where there is a power dynamic, as there may be with your advisor, it can often feel intimidating or uncertain to engage in conversation, so we asked the UW Ombud Office for a few ideas to help get you started:

Tip 1.  Prior to the conversation, focus on your goals. Figure out what it is that you’d like to see happen. I encourage broad goals for many conversations. A goal as narrow as, “Convince my advisor to allow me to take my research in a specific direction” may not be as useful as, “Discuss a potential area of interest with my advisor, and determine opportunities for me to pursue that interest in the near term.”

Tip 2.  While in conversation, be mindful of unproductive behaviors from you or the other person. These can include passive behaviors like withdrawing from the conversation, masking your opinions or ideas, or avoiding sensitive subjects. These behaviors can also look more confrontational like controlling the conversation, labeling the other person, or verbally attacking them. If you or the other person is engaging in these behaviors, it’s time to pause and consider ways to move forward. Once you have identified the behavior, you have two basic choices: attempt to redirect the conversation in a more productive manner, or end the conversation and return to it at a future time (and see our past blogpost on preparing for conflicts).

Tip 3.  If you decide to stay in the conversation, S.A.I.L.Share that you are looking for a mutual goal, Ask them to share their goals, Invent a mutual goal, and Look for new strategies to achieve your goals. A mutual goal can also be broad, sometimes even as broad as “finish the research project”—and even that can be enough to get a conversation back on track.

Deciding to have an in-person conversation can sometimes be the hardest step, even harder than the conversation itself. The Ombud Office can be a confidential resource for making that decision, working through your preparation for a conversation, and to help you be successful in conversations to improve your relationships, communication, and long-term success – both in graduate school and beyond.

This week’s Core Programs newsletter is written in collaboration with Emma Phan, Associate Ombud for the University of Washington. Emma handles both graduate student and postdoc concerns at a tri-campus level, and enjoys collaborating with students to help them raise concerns and work through academic or professional challenges. Whenever she gets the chance, rain or shine, Emma heads to the beach to surf.