Melissa Dorfman, University of Michigan

Handling Difficult Conversations
in the Dual Career Context
Melissa Dorfman
Director, Dual Career Services, University of Michigan
Medical School & College of Engineering
June 4, 2012
• What makes conversations difficult?
– Generally
– In the dual career context
• Structures and processes to reduce difficult conversations
• Tools and methods for more successful conversations
Conversations are difficult when…
• …they involve content that is contentious
• …they make any of those involved feel vulnerable or put self
esteem at risk
• …we care deeply about what is being discussed or the people
with whom we are discussing it
• …they involve issues that are important or have uncertain
• …we fear the outcomes of the conversation
Source: Stone, D. , Patton, B. and Heen, S., (2010), Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (New York, NY: Penguin).
Each Difficult Conversation Is Really Three
Happened /
Should Happen
Source: Stone et . al.
Complexity: Dual Career in the Middle
Unit Hiring
Dual Career
/ College
Multiple Sources of Information About Dual
Career Situations
External Sources
• Stories (direct and
indirect) about other
dual career situations
from colleagues and
personal contacts
• Information from
chairs, search
committee chairs,
faculty, administrators
involved in recruitment
/ retention
Internal to the Couple
• Assumptions and
• Experiences from other
• Different information
shared with each
Range of Contexts: Potential Views of the Dual
Career Function
Great Unknown
Do It Myself
Key Tool
Part of the Job: Dual Career as a Communicator of
Decisions / Information
• Contrary to expectations
• Do not meet unspoken assumptions
• Are surprising and for which the recipient is
not prepared
• Ultimately have undesired implications
– For recruitment or retention
– For faculty life choices
– For budgets
So What Can We Do?
Reduce the
Likelihood of
• Processes and structures to
improve communications
and foster collaboration
Ourselves for
More Effective
• Two way conversations
• The ladder of inference
Setting Expectations with Partners in the
Initial Conversation
1 Request resume or cv prior to initial conversation and circulate to get feedback
2 Provide general information about dual career services at the University of Michigan
Who is eligible for services?
When are they eligible?
What are services?
3 Debunk myths
Services are only available to a partner until a faculty recruit signs an offer letter
Dual career services = placement; “you will take care of my job search for me”
There are no jobs in Michigan
4 Understand partner’s situation and job search goals
Where in decision process is the couple?
What are the partner’s professional goals?
What are the key criteria, other than content, for a position (salary, commute, title, specific
Are there any timing or visa issues of which I should be aware?
Will the partner need a visa?
What has the partner done so far to find a job?
5 Discuss and assign responsibilities for next steps
Setting Expectations with Key Internal Constituents
About the Dual Career Process and Numbers
Routinely update Associate Deans, department chairs, search committee chairs or other
relevant administrators
Plan an annual meeting or report to share data on the past year’s recruiting process Use
data to highlight key points and trends, e.g.,
• Number of dual career couples helped
• Percent of recruits requiring dual career help
• Time to hire
Share best practices for working together to recruit or retain dual career couples
Get the word out early that dual career help is available
Communicate early and often to Director
– Your help in identifying and reaching out to potential contacts is helpful, but
communicating the content of these discussions to the Director is critical
– Keeping the Director up to date about your search committee decisions and
key time lines is critical to ensuring that we are coordinated in our efforts
Respond to questions from the Director or Associate Dean in a timely way
If you are hiring someone who will be a cross-departmental or cross-school hire,
figure out who is on point and ensure all communications are coordinated
Broadening the Communications Process to
Involve Key Constituents
Dual Career
catalogued as sent email or notes
1 Blind copy key
constituents on
2 Make key constituents
aware of important
developments and ask
for guidance on
communication before
sharing with the
Chair, Dean,
3 Share timeline / data
on dual career process
with constituents to
set expectations
Identifying a Broker to Assist in Facilitating
Progress in Dual Career Situations
• Senior academic administrator with respect of
chairs and search committees
• Knowledgeable about:
– Dual career and university processes
– Organizational priorities
• Skilled at interpersonal interactions
• Accessible
• Can get more senior administrators involved if
Taking the Direct Approach to Difficult Content
Set a common agenda for the conversation and then ask the other person if s/he
has things to be discussed in addition to what you’ve proposed
– Agree on an order for the topics of your conversation
For each topic, start with the content that matters most
– Avoid “easing in” to make it easier on the other person
• Delivering bad news: directly share the information, followed by the data
and interpretations that support conclusions
• Making requests: avoid making a demand. Instead, invite conversation
about whether what you want is appropriate. “I wonder if it would make
Name difficult dynamics either in the conversation or the dual career process to
make them discussable
Source: Chris Argyris & Action Design; Stone et . al.
The Ladder of Inference
I Reach Conclusions
Influence What
I Select
I Interpret the Data
I Select Some Data
Pool of Data
Source: Proprietary intellectual property of Monitor Group. Chris Argyris, Partner of Monitor Group.
Telling Your Story Clearly, With Room for
• Present your conclusions as your (or others’) perspective, rather than
“the truth”
– Goal to distinguish fact from opinion
• Share the source of the conclusions
– Both data and assumptions
• May be difficult in the dual career arena if you are delivering
indirect news or conclusions
• Stop periodically to ask for reactions and questions
Source: Proprietary intellectual property of Monitor Group. Chris Argyris, Partner of Monitor Group.
Three Skills for Active Listening
Inquire to learn
– Open ended questions – “Help me understand better…”
– Ask for more data – “Say more about…”
Avoid leading questions that are really disguised statements
Check your understanding
Source: Stone et . al.
Take time to acknowledge the other person’s feelings, even
if they are not explicitly introduced into the conversation
“What I hear you saying is…”
“Just to make sure I’m follow, is what you’re saying…”
“This is likely frustrating / difficult to hear”
“It sounds like you are really upset by this”
Acknowledge before jumping to problem solving
Two-Way Conversation Checklist
When beginning the conversation…
Create a mutual agenda
Explain your intentions and purposes
Ask for theirs
When exchanging your perspectives…
Sharing Your View
Explain your view
Ask the other person
Understanding Their View
Listen for understanding
How are they reacting to your view?
What is their view,
independent of your view?
Ask for examples
Paraphrase and ask
to check for understanding
If reasoning or date is unclear, ask
Deepen your understanding and
others’ understanding if you see
things differently
Explain your view and give examples
Ask what you might be missing
When finishing your conversation…
State any lingering concerns you may have
Agree on concrete next steps you each can take
Source: Proprietary intellectual property of Monitor Group. Chris Argyris, Partner of Monitor Group.
Two Column Exercise (1 of 2)
What We Thought
What We Said
M: Phew, I’m glad this letter
finally got out. There’s
been a lot of pressure from
and this is a great offer.
Melissa: Thanks for making time to talk with me. We were very excited to get the offer
letter to you and Josh is looking forward to working with you. I understand you have
some questions about the details of the letter and we may have some room to negotiate
the terms of the offer since this wasn’t the final offer letter. I know that John’s offer
deadline is in a few days, so I want to help address your concerns.
C: How can the University
of Michigan think I would
go there without some
significant incentive?
Cathy: I got the letter and I can’t believe that this is what was offered to me. I am a
graduate of a top tier Ph.D. program and am doing a post-doc at Lawrence Berkeley Labs.
I got the letter from Josh and can’t even consider it. How did this happen? How is it that
I am being offered this?
M: I am shocked! I thought
this met her needs. I guess
I’ll talk about the process…
Melissa: Well, after your interview, you and I talked about the faculty members you met
with and I also asked for their input. Together we landed on Josh as the best fit for your
interests and it went from there.
C: My advisors have told
me this is a dead end job.
Cathy: I don’t even know what to say. This is just so beneath what I expected. I’m
M: I wish I understood the
Melissa: Your reaction is somewhat surprising to me. I thought this offer met the criteria
for a position that we’d talked about a few weeks ago.
C: What is she not getting?
The title was critical!
Cathy: This is a Research Investigator position. How does that meet what I told you I
M: I’m going over and over
this in my mind and can’t
figure it out…but I don’t
have my notes
Melissa: Well, you told me that you wanted a position on the Research Scientist track.
The Research Investigator position is the first step in that track. Do you remember the
document we discussed about the research track options and positions in the College of
Engineering and the requirements for the each position?
Two Column Exercise (2 of 2)
What We Thought
What We Said
C: How man y times do I have to
tell her the same thing?
Cathy: This offer is for nothing but a glorified post-doc. With my credentials and
publications, you should have offered me an Assistant Research Scientist position.
M: Okay, here is my chance to
explain the process. Does she
think she’s somehow exempt
from the same criteria the
department uses to review all
candidates for faculty
C: I had no idea the chair
couldn’t just offer me what I
Melissa: Josh determined the right position to offer you based on input from the chair
of his department. Your appointment will have to go through an approval process both
within the department (including a faculty vote) and then at the College level. The
department has its own criteria for positions and the chair evaluated your level of
experience including publications, research independence, talks – the whole thing. He
believes that the department will approve a Research Investigator appointment and
that this is appropriate for someone with one year of post-doc experience. We also
have time-in-rank limits (3 years for Assistant Research Scientists) and so he’s also
thinking about how much time you will need to be ready to be promoted to the next
level, especially when you are making a transition in your research focus.
C: I need to get input more
input from people I trust about
the career implications of this
Cathy: I didn’t understand this at all, that anyone would be involved in reviewing and
voting on my position. Why didn’t you tell me? I just can’t accept this Research
Investigator job. I need to go think about this and get some more information.
M: All I can do is get more
information from the
Melissa: Well, why don’t I go back to Josh and to the chair to get some more
information about Research Investigator and Assistant Research Scientist
C: I need to talk with my
husband. Why doesn’t he just
take the position with the more
prestigious school?
Cathy: Fine. Thank you for your help. I’ll be back in touch.
Two Column Exercise
5 minutes
Divide into pairs
15 minutes
Write about a recent difficult conversation using the two
column template.
20 minutes
Share your conversation with your partner and discuss what you
could have done differently
5 minutes
Debrief key lessons learned as a large group
Types of Difficult Conversations in the Dual
Career Context
• Delivering bad news
– Partner did not get a job
– Partner will not be considered by a unit or company
– Hiring unit has negative feedback to share about the
• Debunking assumptions
• Identifying problematic dynamics or behavior in
the job search process
• Asking for contribution or compromise that is
Back Up Slides
Learning Pathways
When having a conversation, consider:
• The constraints, resources and factors that create context – what influences the
• The way you are framing the conversation – what you are thinking at each of the
levels of the conversation (what happened / should happen, feelings, identity)
• The way you are acting – what you say and do
• The results you get – whether or not you reach the desired outcome
Source: Proprietary intellectual property of Monitor Group. Chris Argyris, Partner of Monitor Group.
One Way vs. Two Way Feedback
Someone is to blame (you or me) for an
unwanted outcome
Giving negative feedback can be upsetting
and that is bad
I have to be certain of the truth before I
give feedback
My options are to deliver the truth or
Both may have contributed to a negative
outcome in ways we cannot see
Negative feedback can be upsetting and
that’s okay, as long as we both remain
open to learning
It’s okay to have a strong point of view
My task is to develop a shared
understanding of what happened and
where to go from here
Impose my purposes on the other or
assume our purposes are similar
State my view, but not how I arrived at it
or make disclaimers to soften the blow
Do not ask the other their views or
instead, ask leading questions
Source: Proprietary intellectual property of Monitor Group. Chris Argyris, Partner of Monitor Group.
Check my purposes with the other and ask
about their purposes
Explain my view, how I arrived at it with
conclusions, reasoning and examples
Ask the other for their reaction to my view
and for their view
Ask what I contributed to the situation
Ask how I can help and suggest what the
other might do differently
Blind Spots
What I Can See
• What I am up against
• What I am trying to do
What I Cannot See
• How you do what you do
• What effect you have on me
• What you’re up against
• What you’re trying to do
• How I do what I do
• What effect I have on you
Source: Proprietary intellectual property of Monitor Group. Chris Argyris, Partner of Monitor Group.
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