Awkward conversations

Students ask:  How can I handle awkward conversations with my supervisors?  How can I disagree with my supervisors?  What if my supervisors are wrong?

The supervisory relationship is a bit like a ‘shot-gun wedding’; circumstances have thrown you into an intense and significant relationship, without time to work out much about the other person/people.  Students and supervisors often start as virtual strangers.  Inter-personal skills are crucial, and yet they are not necessarily promoted as part of an academic journey.  

Depending on the supervisors, it can take time to understand their strengths (and weaknesses), how best to communicate with them, what their expectations are, what their standards are, their pet peeves and how to avoid them – that is, understand how best to communicate with them and manage the supervisory relationship.

Supervisors are human beings, too, meaning that they can be fallible, suffer overload, doubt themselves (or be inappropriately arrogant) – just as students can.  And people are diverse, with a huge variety of backgrounds and huge variation in experience.  So it takes time to establish ‘common ground’ and common understanding.  That’s why we encourage supervisors and students alike to make expectations explicit, rather than assume what ‘everyone understands’.

Occasional miscommunication is inevitable.  Even the simplest expressions can mean different things to different people.  For example, I’ve observed that the use and significance of the word ‘so’ in a meeting varies depending on culture:  in Sweden – colleagues said ‘so’ emphatically and put their hands on the table, indicating that they were drawing the discussion to a conclusion; in England – colleagues said ‘so’ with lingering vowel, indicating a prompt for further discussion.  People often speak at different rates, and sometimes this can be perceived as significant when it’s not.  People have different vocabularies, or different idioms, or use words in different ways that can pass undetected – even while the variation creates misunderstanding.

Miscommunication is generally a ‘cock-up’, not a conspiracy.  It’s always safest to assume that your supervisors are acting in good faith.

Here are a few scenarios that crop up repeatedly, with some suggestions about how to manage them:

You haven’t done/delivered what you promised.

A typical, but usually dysfunctional response:  Postpone the meeting (e.g., hide, run away, claim sickness…) – but the problem doesn’t go away if you hide from it; hiding just delays the inevitable, and may make things worse.

1. Apologise.  If it’s a ‘cock-up’, then come clean about it, set a new delivery target, and move on to the next agenda item.

2. Explain the obstacles.  Perhaps you didn’t understand as fully as you thought you did, perhaps the task is harder than you thought, perhaps you and your supervisors understood the task differently. 

3.  Change the task management strategy (e.g., introduce daily check-in or submissions for a while).

4. Discuss the underlying issue:  disagreement, incomplete understanding, …

6. Give advance warning.  If you see an obstacle arising, alert your supervisor.  It may be something that can be addressed more readily than you realise.

A colleague asked me to help with a student who wasn’t delivering on a writing task.  The two of us went to discuss it with her, and in the introductory discussion, the supervisor explained the task to me in broad terms, and I asked a few questions to hone in on what he actually wanted, and then I re-stated the task in different terms.  At that point, the student interrupted:  “If I knew that’s all you wanted, I could have done it weeks ago.”

Something happened that you didn’t understand … or you find yourself confused in retrospect.

1.  Write notes:

  • give yourself a chance to get a reality check on your understanding
  • keep an audit trail / history of the discussion
  • notes help you process the meeting, e.g., highlighting agreed actions; exposing priorities and uncertainties

2. Ask your supervisor to slow down, or to repeat, or to explain.

3. Admit confusion!  

4.  Think about it – and then ask questions.

5. Follow up (in writing, or in conversation) with after-thoughts.

Supervisors are often aware that there might be confusion.  They will be concerned.  They will await feedback.  But they need that feedback in order to help.

I had an excellent student who was initially very quiet in meetings.  After a couple of months, when I asked about it, wondering if was a language problem, she clarified that it was a ‘thinking’ problem – she couldn’t think everything through at the pace of the meeting.  So we instituted the ‘day after’ email or conversation, in which she would respond to what had been discussed.

Your supervisor has done something that offended you.

1.  Assume good faith (‘cock up’, not conspiracy).

3. Flag it.

4. 24-hour rule.  Give it a day, calm down, and reflect – before you over-react.

5. Get advice.

6. Ask a third party to address it.

Remember that supervisors are human (i.e., fallible) too.  It is surprisingly easy to offend someone else unintentionally.  Assume good faith, and call out the behaviour without confrontation.  The other person must be aware in order to change behaviour.

Very small things can matter profoundly to people.  One student came to me saying:  ‘My supervisor keeps calling me by the wrong name.  At first, I didn’t want to say anything.  Now it seems too late, but it makes it hard for me to listen to what he has to say.’  The student felt trapped.  The solution was simple; I spoke quietly to the supervisor (who was chagrined), and the issue was rectified without any more fuss.

Your supervisor asked you to do something with which you disagree.

1. Assess:  Is it a fundamental disagreement, or a superficial one?

2.  Provide evidence for your view – potentially expanding your supervisor’s view.

3. Compromise – find a middle ground that addresses both perspectives.

4. Do it both your way, and your supervisor’s way, so that you can compare and discuss both approaches – laying the groundwork for better communication in the future.

5. Propose a better alternative, with a clear rationale.

6.  Supervisors often have other motives, e.g., your supervisors may be taking a long view, so there’s a benefit further down the road; the supervisors may want you to discover their justification through experience, rather than simply telling you; the supervisors may be working toward particular learning goals (e.g., providing a subtle provocation for you to disagree with them and defend your position).  Consider why you’ve been asked to do that thing – and ask why, or ask if your guess about the rationale is correct.

I once helped with an excellent student who was writing up, but who hit a ‘crash and burn’ moment during a supervision meeting.  He reached a crisis because, although he had too much respect for his supervisors (and was culturally dis-inclined) to contradict them, he disagreed profoundly about how to write the dissertation.  When he bolted from the supervision, his supervisors asked me to intervene.  He and I sat down over a pot of tea and spent some hours talking through cultural differences and PhD expectations, as well as his thesis.  When we presented his alternative plan to his supervisors, they were thrilled and relieved, because they had been waiting a long time for him to express his opinion.  Thereafter, he took the lead in their discussions and sailed through to complete his PhD.

It’s always possible that you’ve just misunderstood your supervisor, or that your supervisor has misunderstood you.  So many ‘issues’ turn out to be minor or simple to address, once they are aired.  However, if you don’t communicate effectively, then chances are that problems will fester.

This text is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 license –
Images are ©Marian Petre; if you want to re-use any cartoons, please contact me.

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