Difficult Conversations

by Zhenya

I was also thinking to call this post ‘More on Soft Skills’, since I am returning to the topic I already wrote about here .

My current project motivates to me to reflect a lot. Traveling ‘down memory lane’ (sorry for the cliché!) I have been looking through my notes on various instances/aspects I was dealing with as the Director of Studies (DoS), in order to create a list of ‘cases’ to use for the project.

In the above mentioned post I was writing about the lack of soft/people skills, or the ‘How’ to deal with a variety of situations and people a new DoS would most likely face in the new role. I was also writing that such skills are not usually ‘taught’ explicitly (especially not as a part of TESOL/Applied Linguistics major, or intensive training courses as initial teaching qualification). Moreover, these skills are not even part of a course when you are becoming a trainer (that is a different topic to discuss though)

I find articles on Harvard Business Review blog very helpful for the ‘management’ side of our ELT world. Specifically, these two posts made me want to write this time:

When to Skip a Difficult Conversation with the eleven questions helping us decide when and how to approach the conversation, and what might be a reason to skip it completely. Quoting them below.

  1. Based on what I know about this person and our relationship, what can I realistically hope to achieve by having the conversation?
  2. What is my “secret agenda” or “hidden hope” for this conversation? (Long-term harmony? Revenge? That they will change?)
  3. What concrete examples do I have to share of how this issue has shown up?
  4. What’s my contribution to the situation?
  5. Do I tend to look for problems with this person or about this issue?
  6. Is it already starting to resolve itself?
  7. How long ago did it arise? Is it a repeat or recurring problem? Could it become one?
  8. How “material” is the issue to our relationship or to the job?
  9. How committed am I to being “right”?
  10. What reasonable, actionable solution can I offer?
  11. Is this the right person to talk to about this issue?

A Mental Trick to Help with Challenging Conversations, a quote from which is a good reminder about being aware of and communicating positive regard:

Only when you become mindful of your biases can you choose a more constructive path. Positive assumptions make you open to progress; negative assumptions mire you in the past.

Taken in Barcelona. Summer 2015.

Taken in Barcelona. Summer 2015.

Examples of difficult conversations (a mixture of a DoS and Trainer issues)

Observing and giving feedback to a more experienced colleague

Communicating with a course participant about being in danger of not receiving the training course certificate (the competencies not being met)

Talking to a parent who is not happy with the progress (often, with the grade) the child received at their state school

Talking to a student who feels she is not making enough progress (not meeting the learning goal)

Reminding a teacher to complete the additional paperwork the school is experimenting with

Talking to a course participant about their group work skills (several other participants mentioned that it is hard to work with him/her in group lesson planning)

Having a meeting with senior management on re-structuring the school departments in the new academic year (discussing the changes it brings to the teaching team)

Negotiating a salary raise

Talking to… (what can you add?)

The longer the list gets, the clearer I see that perhaps any type of conversation at a school/on a course might be seen as ‘difficult’ at some point (under certain circumstances, in a certain culture/context, etc.) I wonder if having those 11 questions in mind might help. I wonder if being aware of the soft skills might change the perception of a situation. I wonder what else can help.

Finally, would like to add a link to a post by the Secret DoS On Dealing with Difficult People .The quote I especially like says:

‘There are no difficult people, but there are ways of reacting to people that can cause you difficulties’.

I could also add that there are no difficult people — it is specific conversations that might be/feel this way. Fortunately, there are strategies to make them easier, smoother, more meaningful… Softer?

Thank you for reading! 🙂