Difficult Conversations | The tools every trainee needs

Nascent Transcript Author: Latrice Landry, PhD. You may have noticed it by now, but in addition to the scientific concepts, research skills, and good science communication [including presentation and writing], your career requires you to be skilled at having difficult conversations. This has never been more true than now. The pandemic has caused the infrastructure which supports ‘usual’ scientific progress to drastically change. Some of us were temporarily forced out of our labs in the spring only to return with restrictions, pre-scheduled shifts or sign-ups for use of laboratory space, and others have had to remain remote. Daily resources, in-person meetings, demonstrations of how to do that complicated technique, and the quick “can you help me with this”, have been eliminated. For those transitioning to the next step in their career, interviews, funding, and hiring freezes may be interrupting that transition. Some individuals have had family members, friends or themselves have been afflicted with COVID-19.  Unemployment, housing insecurity, childcare, and physical isolation are all things that have the potential to affect not only our mental health, but also our ability to do our work. In addition to the pandemic, we also have an increasing national dialogue regarding the more endemic issues around racism, sexism and discrimination. Trainees can be directly or indirectly impacted by the site of George Floyd’s killing, the bombing of a church, synagogue or Sikh temple, and the accounts of sexual exploitation of women. And yet there is still so much more going on in our society, ‘difficult things’ that we may need to discuss. The combination of the pandemic with the endemic discrimination in our country, may necessitate new conversations  with our principal investigators, mentors, peers and administrators.

Difficult conversations can be difficult because they are taboo or because we perceive that the conversation is undesired by the other party. Whatever the reason, the conversation is difficult. However, it is important to realize there are tools that can help you facilitate the discussion. Here are four tools outlined in a discussion on difficult conversations in our annual meeting (ASHG20 #toughtalk). These tools can be used to navigate difficult conversations with individuals or with organizations. Embedded in each of these approaches is the need for a plan, clear thought and clear communication. These types of conversations are difficult for everyone. A quick google search of the subject results in numerous websites filled with suggestions, tools, encouragement and multiple Ted Talks. For more on the ASHG20 #ToughTalk session, visit:  https://www.pathlms.com/ashg/courses/25436/video_presentations/180930

Toolkit for Difficult conversations
1)       Building Shared Language Use clear decisive language that is mutually understood.
2)       Setting the Room Set ground rules and expectations in advance. Refer to these rules when needed.
3)       Sticking to the Facts Separate feelings from facts. Avoid filling in the gaps, stick to what you know.
4)       Self-Advocacy & Assertiveness Research needs and rights for position and promotion. Review with supervisor.


Using your toolkit choose your strategy for handling the following “Difficult Conversations”.
 Jounghee is a senior post-doc in her lab when the pandemic closes the university. She is applying for jobs and knows she needs to get her final papers out to be competitive on the job market. She is in the process of analyzing her data and preparing her manuscripts when campus re-opens. Her principal investigator instructs her to go into the lab to train the junior postdoc and graduate students on a vital technique and asks her to create protocols for the procedure since the previous technician had to leave suddenly during the pandemic and there is limited documentation on the laboratory protocols. Jounghee asks if the other senior postdoc can help and is told he has to finish up his papers and already has interviews for jobs. Jounghee feels confused by the PI’s prioritization of her colleagues’ needs but struggles to find the words to address the issue.
 Mario, a first-generation doctoral student, just successfully completed his qualifying exam. His professor invites him to co-lead a summer research program for first-generation college students. He says yes, as he is passionate about science outreach to underrepresented students. The following week the director of development suggested she received his name from his professor and would like to invite him to do a photoshoot and a few interviews for the school prospective magazine. That same week the Dean announces a diversity task force and Mario’s advisor nominates him as a student representative. There are very few minorities at his institution and Mario feels strongly about the need to build a diverse STEM workforce. However, he starts to feel behind on his dissertation proposal. He is happy about all of the initiatives at the school, but struggles to tell his mentors and advisors no.


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