Having the Difficult Conversations

So the beginning of the new academic is here, and as is the tradition with departments and universities all around the world we had our pre-semester meeting. For us it was actually a two day "retreat", where we dealt with a lot of issues. 

Last semester I sent out a survey to our majors to find out why they chose to attend our program, what we do well, and what we could do better. I wanted to know the stories they were telling about us. As you can imagine the feedback was revealing. It was honest and we are doing some things really well. As you can imagine there were also lots of places for improvement, and I was asked to facilitate conversation around these challenges.

It was not a conversation I was looking forward to having. Often times when we look at student (or audience, or customer, or fill in the blank) perceptions it is easy to dismiss them. After all, don't we know more about our situation, don't we see what they don't see, and in the case of students aren't we the experts. So, I prepared myself for a series of excuses, defensive responses, disengagement, and a desire to keep the status quo. 

Instead, the discussion went the opposite way. People engaged, they shared solutions, they wanted to make progress and be better. In fact there was consensus to do this survey each year. It was a moment that taught me two important things.

1) While it may be difficult to hear it's important to know the stories that are being told about you.

2) In any kind of organization or team the majority of the people are looking for the same outcome. In our case we are all working towards what we think is best for our students. There are always going to be disagreements about how to get to that goal but we are all looking for the same outcome. This means when push comes to shove, and when you engage everyone in the conversation, those people care and they want to have the difficult conversations because they want to make the organization a better place.

So my take away is, don't run away from the tough conversations because deep down it's the one we all want to have.


According to a public domain search, this is a difficult conversation.

According to a public domain search, this is a difficult conversation.