top of page

How to Navigate a Difficult Discussion

"You know, you need to bathe or shower every day. And you can't wear the same clothes daily without washing them." That was the start of the most difficult conversation I've ever had in my professional career. It was with a faculty member who smelled so bad that you could tell where he had been in the building by his odor. 

Academia is a people-oriented business that involves many interactions. Having a difficult conversation is inevitable.  

Unfortunately, our academic teaching doesn't prepare us for difficult conversations. Although confronting a faculty member may be uncomfortable, having a difficult conversation helps students, colleagues, and faculty work within the academic community's parameters.

How you handle these conversations will define you as a colleague or administrator and minimize the conflict and aftereffects that result.

Here are four tips to help you prepare for and handle difficult conversations. 

1: Determine how you will handle the conversation. 

Approach the meeting with professional grace. However, do not allow whomever you talk with to disrespect, bully, or intimidate you. Set those parameters firmly before the meeting and be willing to terminate it immediately if any of those behaviors occur. 

2: Plan the conversation

To feel confident during the conversation and prevent problems during and after the meeting, consider factors such as:

  • Where will you have the conversation?

It would be best if you had the conversation in a semi-private space. In most cases, your office with the door open is adequate to meet this requirement. Refrain from having difficult conversations in a closed-door office, as this scenario could lead to false accusations. Instead, leave your door open and, if necessary, recruit someone to be available in the office area if the conversation turns contentious.

  • What topics do you need to cover?

Have an agenda. This is solely for your benefit. Writing something down will help you focus on the topic. The agenda must be concise and factual; there is no need to veer off into emotional and personal discussions. Noting what happened and what must occur is adequate for your agenda.

  • What resolution do you expect?

Plan the outcome. In the case above, I wanted the faculty member to bathe daily and wear clean clothes. That was it. In your difficult conversation, the resolution may encompass any number of things. You need to know what that resolution will be to tell the individual what you expect of them. 

  • Do you need to inform your supervisor(s) about the meeting?

If the conversation causes difficulties for others in your academic community or more significant issues, give your supervisor a heads-up. Your supervisor may also have thoughts about making the meeting smoother. 

3: Schedule, keep calm, and conduct the meeting

As a young department chair, I had a very contentious meeting with an associate dean which devolved into shouting and cursing at each other. While my emotions certainly played a role, looking back, I realize that much of the reason the meeting got heated was that the Associate Dean who called the meeting allowed his emotions to get out of control due to some pointed questions I asked.

Since you are initiating the conversation, it is up to you to maintain a professional air and calm temperature during the meeting, with no emotional outbursts. Follow your agenda, lay out the issues and resolution, and allow the person to ask questions. Then, end the meeting. Debating or probing the issue only works well if that is your purpose. But it would be best if you remained calm. That also applies to you if you are the subject of a difficult conversation.

The meeting with my department chair left a long-lasting impetus to maintain my calm during meetings. It also triggered a continuing question about whether I should have recorded the conversation. If you decide to voice-record your meeting, be aware that there are legal ramifications; in most cases, you cannot record the meeting without the knowledge and consent of the other participants. At the beginning, it is necessary to state that you'd like to record it for your records and future reference.

4: Actions after the meeting

Remember that your difficult conversation isn't over until you start the action or resolution you described in the meeting.  Also, document what happened in the meeting in writing or a voice memo for your protection and secure that documentation.

While you will likely not need this documentation, it is critical that while the conversation is fresh in your mind, you put down the salient points such as date, time, attendees, what was discussed, etc.  This documentation will always provide you with those salient facts if you need them in the future.  Additionally, if the conversation goes sideways, it is advisable to notify your superiors about the outcome.  While those superiors may not need to do anything, it is always better if your superiors know what may be coming at them before they are surprised.

Difficult conversations in academia are inevitable. However, if you think about the conversation in advance, plan for it, have the meeting according to your plan, and adequately carry out actions after the meeting, you will find that it goes more smoothly and has fewer aftereffects. 

Using these guidelines for difficult conversations saw me through many uncomfortable conversations during my academic career, with most cases having positive outcomes. Even tricky discussions with faculty members who needed to bathe and wear clean clothes!


Keep Moving Forward



bottom of page