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Communication and Difficult Conversations Print Email

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Communication and difficult conversations is a topic not include among the standard nine education areas recommended by the Office of Research Integrity. Nevertheless, it is a topic of particular importance for postdocs whose position at any institution is one with little official status often requiring that postdocs rely upon persuasion and goodwill to navigate some aspects of the research environment. In particular, a postdoc’s sole reliance upon his or her supervisor for resources, support, approval, and future job recommendations means that communication is a critical skill as is diplomacy when conversations turn towards difficult or sensitive topics. These skills are doubly important for international postdocs who come from a different cultural perspective, with different norms and assumptions, and may have to have these difficult conversations in a second language.

Communication for Difficult Situations

Dealing with people in any environment can lead to difficult situations, and the research environment is no different. Despite the “scholar in an ivory tower” allusions, research requires significant collaboration and people management skills. Postdocs have the disadvantage of having little status or power within their institution, which can create additional difficulties. Thus communication in such situations can be the key to amicable resolutions

Teaching Materials

High Conflict People in Legal Disputes by Bill Eddy.
It provides an overview of the 4 difficult personality types (Borderline, Narcissistic, Antisocial, Histrionic) that can be encountered in any kind of dispute, not just legal, as well as advice on how to deal (or not deal) with each one.

“Dealing with Difficult People and Difficult Situations” by Dale Cameron
A New York Academies of Science eBriefing

Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists by Carl M. Cohen and Suzanne L. Cohen
Book published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press that covers general management skills, among which are dealing with conflicts

“Dealing with Conflict” by Carl Cohen
Article in The Scientist (2007, Vol 21, Issue 2) (subscription required) drawing on information from Cohen’s Lab Dynamics book

Influence Without Authority by Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford
This book deals more with workplace influence such as how to get things done when you are not in charge.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
The book probes other aspects of influencing people, in particular, how human psychology can be used in marketing and sales

Obtaining and Negotiating a Faculty Position” and
Laboratory Leadership in Science
Chapters 1 and 3 from Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (2006) Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, Second Edition

Conflict Resolution

Having a complete set of management skills should help postdocs to avoid conflict, but when conflict does arise, the postdoc should be prepared to seek an amicable resolution with the parties involved. Given the highly competitive nature of scientific research, and the increasing trend toward team science, postdocs will need training in conflict resolution. Because postdocs have very little status or power within an institution, training in this area should emphasize how to avoid conflict by clearly communicating expectations, concerns, and questions in a forthright and respectful manner. Building on the negotiation skills addressed in the previous section will be helpful in this regard.
(excerpt from the NPA Postdoc Office toolkit article on "Providing Complementary Skills Development Programs")

Teaching Materials

There are numerous workshops, articles and other resources available on this topic:

The NPA offered a workshop on this topic at its 2nd Annual Meeting. The workshop was entitled: Pragmatic Leadership: Finding Your Leverage Points for Success

The University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences Office of Academic Career Development offers a Postdoctoral Professionalism Series, including a workshop on "Enhancing Your Professional Skills: Strategies for Conflict Management."

Science Careers has published a series of helpful articles on this topic:

Lab Rage: Dealing with Personality Conflicts

Butting Heads: Conflict Resolution for Postdocs, Part I

Butting Heads: Conflict Resolution for Postdocs, Part II

See also:
Dysfunctional Advisee-Adviser Relationships: Methods for Negotiating Beyond Conflict


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