Telling it like it was: blog response for “Telling It Like it Is – Communicating Effectively in Difficult Conversations Conference”

We all know the field of librarianship is evolving. New technology, perspectives, information needs, media formats etc. greet us around every corner. I personally believe that this is what makes our field exciting – it is not stagnant and because we constantly try to keep up with the world around us – it can’t be. All this change often leads to conflict. Organizational consultant Maureen Sullivan points out that conflict, disagreement and collaboration do not have to have a negative connotation. Conflict can lead to better understanding of oneself and colleagues and ultimately promotes change or improvement.

Most people do not seek out conflict; many avoid it. Maybe you even avoided attending this session because just seeing the phrase “difficult conversation” made you squeamish.

How do you handle conflict? There is a range of responses to conflict: avoid, accommodate, compete, compromise or collaborate. Sullivan explains that from her work with libraries she finds many librarians tend to collaborate and compromise in the face of conflict but there are many more in our field that prefer to avoid it all together. Sullivan finds that many administrators and people holding positions of authority do not have the skills necessary to engage in successful dialogue on difficult issues. There is a definite need for people to be trained and encouraged to communicate more effectively. Effective communication is crucial to our daily interactions. The ability to address and handle conflict is also critical in light of the role advocacy plays in our profession. We advocate for many things like funding, awareness, privacy, and access–what will happen to those efforts if we shy away from conflict?

In the session, dialogue was defined as “a conversation in which the parties involved use a set of practices to create shared meaning or collective understanding.” Successful dialogue requires people to suspend judgment, listen actively and make a genuine effort to understand the different perspectives of the parties involved. Sounds easy right? While it may be common sense – openness and active listening is hard – particularly when emotions run high. Sullivan outlines 7 steps to approaching a difficult conversation (handouts will be posted on the NELA website). The basic idea is that you should be clear of your own personal goals entering a conversation, be perceptive of the reaction of the other parties, create a space of mutual respect and confidence, and clearly explain your picture of the situation. In order to make it a dialogue, you then need to step back, actively listen and contemplate the perspective of the other parties involved. After everyone has had a chance to express and discuss their views, the group should work to reach a consensus and document the necessary course of action. In order for this to be a successful exchange people need to reconsider how they represents themselves in a conversation. To be an effective communicator you must understand yourself and your ideas, be an active listener, clearly express your thoughts and feelings and manage emotions.

So much for a succinct blog entry…I just wanted to tell you like it was!

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