Good morning, GTC!
How do you handle uncomfortable situations, anticipated or unexpected, personal or professional? This topic is very broad, to be sure, and has been discussed in great detail by many. During our workshop on Addressing Uncomfortable Situations, workshop participants became part of this discussion. Here's what Donnelly West, our workshop facilitator, has to say about the situation:
Unsurprisingly, a large body of information exists discussing socially uncomfortable and professionally difficult subjects. Sorting through these sources reveals some great examples and some not-so-great examples of how to handle things. It is important to remember that regardless of how uncomfortable you are, the fact that you are attempting to address the situation is commendable; give yourself some credit.
During this meeting, we started by getting some examples of uncomfortable, professional scenarios from participants:
- A male coworker told a female employee that her superior salesmanship was due to her chest
- A student addressed a TA, "White b***h, you can’t tell me what to do"
- Being nervous as a TA or professor handling notorious, historically sensitive topics in the classroom such as race, class, income, gender, sex, sexual orientation, hygiene, personal space, cultural issues & religion
- As a junior professional, witnessing faculty complaining about or slandering each other
- Being singled out as a student by a professor to represent an entire group of individuals (e.g. "What is your view as a gay man?" "What do black people think about this?")
- Generally, when you’re in a position of power, dealing with difficult topics
Then we discussed some positive examples of handling traditionally difficult material:
- Discussing the advantages of having both insider and outsider perspectives when teaching world music so as not to alienate any group – especially individuals who may feel very connected to certain music genres
- A Jewish professor teaching about music written by an anti-Semitic composer started by addressing the controversy, but explained the view of some scholars that pieces of work are distinct from the political and social views of an artist
- When addressing cultural norms (personal space, friendliness, personal details to share in the workplace) with an international colleague, taking that person out to coffee and bringing up differences by asking questions about his/her culture first
What made the second set of situations so much more comfortable?
- Making no attempt to cover up or excuse the tough subjects
- Admitting that the person in power is fallible and can say/do the wrong thing (and apologizing when you do)
- Cultivate a more intellectual perspective
- Especially as a leader, maintain emotional distance
- Creation of a safe, respectful atmosphere - if folks feel safe and secure they will not be as offensive or defensive
- Acknowledging that generally people don’t want to offend other people
- Understanding that vastly different things can be offensive - try to work with the sensitivity level of the group
- Prevent escalation to hurtful and damaging language
- Share personal experiences (within reason) to build trust
- Work through the subject as a community; promote teamwork
- Being secure enough and sensitive enough to bring up difficult topics can have a powerful effect
- Especially important if you are not the one in a traditional position of power (as a TA to a professor; a junior colleague to someone more senior; etc)
Clarity / Focus
- Keep the uncomfortable subject and the logic of the situation in the forefront
- Do not allow the emotions attached to dominate
- Rephrase thoughts to sound less judgmental and more constructive (“I hear your frustration over this, but I think you’ve also made a good point about..”)
- Sometimes, folks need to be reminded of what they are doing and how it affects others
With these pillars of good communication taking us successfully through awkward conversations, it is still important to consider that people often need time to process their thoughts and feelings, as well as to find their voice on the matter. Professionalism and advanced knowledge of the material conveys confidence and inspires trust when handling traditionally sensitive topics. Remember to consider the individual or group to which you are speaking. Overemphasizing uncomfortable situations can certainly exacerbate the problem - it is a balance, and that is why it is challenging! Practice with thoughtful reflection and consistent consideration for others makes uncomfortable topics approachable.
(Posted by Sarah Messbauer)