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Dear Kerry Ann: The Dreaded Hallway Conversations

Wednesday, July 20, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Allison Van Buren
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Originally posted on Inside Higher Ed.

Dear Kerry Ann,

Next month, I’ll be starting my second year on the tenure track. I love my job, but for the past two weeks, I’ve been dreading my return to campus. It’s some combination of the weight of current events, an escalating pattern of incivility on my campus last year, my colleagues’ views about race relations, the upcoming presidential election and the fact that I’m the only scholar of color in my department. I’ve experienced so much sadness and grief over the violence of the past few weeks. 

The only saving grace is that it’s summer, so I haven’t had to go into my department and interact with my colleagues. I’m not sure what would be worse -- if they ignored the incidents and pretended nothing happened or if they wanted to share their opinions about Black Lives Matter. 

I work in a STEM field, so unlike the social sciences and humanities, race relations are not a focus of study in our discipline. I’m not concerned about formal campus events, town hall meetings or organized public conversations, because those tend to be facilitated by faculty experts from other parts of campus. What I’m dreading are the casual conversations -- hallway banter, unsolicited opinions and social gatherings.

Every day I feel a little more anxious about going back, because I’m dreading the hallway conversations. I know they will be awkward, and I’m unsure how to respond. I love my job but not my colleague’s attitudes towards race relations. 


Dreading the Fall Term

Dear Dreading,

Thanks for your honesty, and I’m sure this question will spark lots of conversations that might not have happened otherwise. You’re not the only tenure-track faculty member (and certainly not the only underrepresented scholar) who’s wondering how political conflicts will play out in your collegial relationships during the upcoming academic year.

This is likely to be a volatile year on college campuses. While I’ve previously written about the importance of radical self-care during times of societal unrest as well as balancing activism and scholarship, I hear you identifying a different source of your anticipatory dread: informal conversations where your colleagues (for whom race and politics are not areas of research) share their personal opinions on current events.

The good news is that you have plenty of time before you return to clarify your boundaries, gain some new skills and put support structures in place so that you can confidently navigate casual conversations in your department. You don’t have to be a race scholar to establish boundaries, but you will want to get comfortable with healthy conflict in order to feel confident when any professional interaction veers off track. To get started, I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions.

Where do you stand, and what do you want?

I recommend taking time this summer to figure out how you feel, what your positions are, and why you hold them. I suggest taking inventory because I’m unclear what is driving anxiety about the hallway conversations. Is it that: 1) you have strong positions and are afraid of the consequences of articulating them explicitly, 2) you are unclear about your positions and are afraid of not being able to defend them to someone with strong contrasting views, or 3) you don’t want to talk about race and politics with your colleagues at all but don’t know how to create that boundary?

I don’t have any judgment about where you choose to draw your boundaries. I work with STEM faculty who run the full spectrum in how they see the intersection of politics and their professional life -- from completely separate to fully integrated. It doesn’t matter where you are on that spectrum; it only matters that you are clear about where you stand and want to draw your boundaries, and that you develop the skills to do so in a consistent and professional manner that doesn’t harm your relationships with your colleagues.

Are you open to possibilities?

When we dread a future event, it’s often because we have already created a negative story about how that event will unfold. In this case, it sounds like you’re imagining that conversations about Black Lives Matter and the presidential campaign will devolve in a negative direction.

While it’s true that such conversations may be awkward, I want to encourage you to consider that conversations on sensitive topics can take many other potential directions, including:

  • nonexistent: where your colleagues may avoid conversations on race and politics altogether
  • genuinely inquisitive: where your colleagues may ask you open-ended questions because they genuinely want to know your perspective
  • collaborative: where your colleagues may agree with your views and want to build a common foundation
  • combative: where some of your colleagues may vehemently disagree with you but also respect your right to hold a different opinion
  • condescending: where you may have a colleague who wants to instruct you on why your position is wrong
  • generative: where your colleagues may want to strategize about what can be done about the lack of diversity at your college
  • transformative: where colleagues who have had a profound insight or experience over the summer may want to share with you, or where a healthy conflict could even improve your professional relationship by creating better mutual understanding.

My question to you is: Are you open to the full range of possibilities?

I find that when we walk into a new year with preconceived ideas about what will happen, we’re likely to find exactly what we expect. In other words, if I dread negative conversations, then I’m likely to find negative conversations. Alternatively, when we walk into a new academic year open to the possibility that our colleagues have grown and evolved over the summer months, we may be surprised by the range of conversations that occur, allowing us to shift our attention to the fruitful ones while drawing clear boundaries when the negative ones occur.

Do you know how to have healthy conflict?

Lots of problems can occur in casual conversations, including microaggressions, unexpected conflicts or awkward silence. But all of those issues can be addressed if you are skilled in healthy conflict. Most people don’t realize that once you become skilled in healthy conflict, you no longer have to hide your opinions, sugarcoat your feelings or worry about burning a bridge with a colleague. It’s just a matter of using the skill in the moment.

The easiest place to start is by memorizing a simple framework and then practicing it. I like to use Marshall Rosenberg’s formula for nonviolent communication:

  • State your observation of the problematic behavior (i.e., “When I observe __________.”).
  • Describe how it makes you feel (i.e., “I feel __________.”).
  • Make your needs explicit (i.e., “What I need/value is __________.”).
  • Clearly request what you want (i.e., “Would you be willing to __________?”).

I love this framework because it forces me to use “I” statements and works in a wide range of situations. You can use it when you want to end a conversation immediately, draw a new boundary, assert an opposing position or challenge a microaggression. For example, the morning after Philando Castile’s death was live-streamed on Facebook, a well-intentioned colleague launched into an unsolicited structural analysis about the role of technology in social movements. I was still in my feelings about it, so I was not in the space to have that type of conversation. I used the NVC format to say, “When I see yet another black man being killed by the police via live stream, I feel horrified, upset and overwhelmed. What I need is a little space to deal with my feelings right now, so would you be willing to postpone an analytic conversation? I do want to talk to you about this, and I value that conversation, but I just can’t have it right now.”

It was simple, imperfect and totally authentic. I could have said many other things in the moment, but that was what was real for me. And because it was delivered in an honest, empowered and nonreactive way, our professional relationship is unharmed and our “dreaded hallway conversation” can now become an exciting coffee-shop conversation at an appropriate time.

I’m not suggesting that all conflicts can be easily resolved with a magic formula! I realize that you’re working in a context with unequal power dynamics and that these hallway conversations are with people who will eventually go into a room, close the door and vote on your promotion and tenure. That said, learning and practicing the skills of healthy conflict will help you to engage your colleagues with confidence and integrity (instead of hiding who you are and where you stand) while also strengthening your professional relationships. In short, you have to start somewhere, and using nonviolent communication is a great place to start.

Are you able to separate people from their positions?

The final question I encourage you to consider is whether you can separate individuals from their political positions. In other words, if Professor Smith has a differing view than you, do you mentally categorize him as categorically wrong in all things, a bad human being or generally “an asshole”? Can you work with Professor Smith in unrelated departmental activities without holding his positions against him? While others may disagree, consider that the ability to separate people from their positions is the hallmark of maturity as an academic and the foundation for long-term professional relationships.

The fact is that you’re returning to your campus in a few weeks. You can choose to dread that event because of potentially negative hallway conversations, but that is just one of many different stories you can choose about your return. You can also choose to return as an confident faculty member who is clear about her positions and fully capable of engaging in healthy conflict on a regular basis. You can choose to return as a person who has a full and healthy life beyond campus and is thereby free to speak her mind in any professional context. And I’m sure you can create other stories about your return that are far more empowered than dreading it. Whichever of these options you choose, just recognize that while you don’t control your colleagues’ behaviors, you do control your own thinking, what skills you cultivate, where you draw your boundaries and how you show up this fall.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.
President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

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