Having Difficult Conversations

While it is true that people often rise to the level of your expectations, it is also true that people may not understand your expectations and/or may choose to push the boundaries. Whether you are a faculty member and you are upset with a student's behavior in class, or you are a student and you don't like how a friend or a faculty member treated you, or you are a staff member who is concerned about someone's behavior in your office, often the best thing to do is talk to the person about it. If you don't, at least one of these things usually happens:

  • You are upset with them and they don't know why or don't know you are upset
  • They will probably do the same thing again later if you don't confront it early
  • They will do more serious things later because they can keep pushing your boundaries
  • You learn later that you wish you could have done something about it, but then it feels too late.

It doesn't feel comfortable to have difficult conversations, and it is not something that many people do well. However, unless there is a concern for physical safety, the first step towards addressing conflicts and concerns about another person's behavior is to talk to them.

Here is an outline to help guide you if you find you need to have a difficult conversation with someone about their behavior. This can be helpful when talking with a friend, family member, significant other, etc.

  1. Remember to speak your experiences, not those of someone else. Use "I" statements and give examples when you can.
  2. Build rapport and explain why you want to talk to the person (to tell someone not to yell at you, to keep your friendship, to discuss a grade in class, get another student to pull their own weight, to tell someone you aren't comfortable with how they spoke to you)
  3. Describe the behavior that occurred (someone said an offensive joke in front of you, challenged you in public, didn't respect you when you said you didn't want to talk to them, violated the rules of the class, etc)
  4. Describe how the behavior affected you (you couldn't study or teach, you felt upset, you cried, etc)
  5. Listen to their perspective. Let the other person speak about why they did what they did. They might not even know that you have a problem with their behavior until just now, so they may have an emotional response. Don't interrupt them, and don't get defensive. Try to find out why this happened. Whether it is your friend, an instructor, a staff member, or a student, most people have good intentions and it helps to understand them. Often, people act out because they are trying to manage stress or they need help and they aren't sure what to do.
  6. Tell the person what you want to see done differently in the future (no more offensive jokes, to respect your boundaries when you assert them, to better explain what the grading standards are, to follow the rules on the syllabus, etc)
  7. Share things you can do to help prevent this from happening in the future (to walk away if you get offended, to be clearer about boundaries, to re-read the syllabus, to refer them to a campus resource)
  8. Describe what will happen if something like this happens again (you will stop being friends, you will report the behavior, you will appeal the decision, etc).
  9. Make sure you are both on the same page - depending on the situation you might want to send an email or write down what you talked about so you both have the same information. This also helps to create a record of what was decided in case the behavior escalates and you need to report it formally.
  10. Follow up. After some time has passed, it is good to communicate with each other - either to discuss how the issue has been resolved, or to provide further feedback to ensure it doesn't happen again. Relationships are built on open communication.