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Managing Difficult Conversations — Opportunities for Growth in Field Placements
By Lindsey Getz

Social work field instructors play a vital role in social work education because the field experience is where students take everything they’ve learned in the classroom and start applying it to practice. While it is rewarding work, field instructors are also often faced with managing difficult conversations with their students—and this can be uncertain territory to navigate. Fortunately, there are tools that can help make difficult conversations more manageable and productive—the ultimate goal.

Why Are Some Conversations So Hard?
Sylvia Corcoran, LCSW, MCEd, an internship coordinator at the Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work, recently presented on this topic alongside Sandy Peterson, MSW, CISW. Peterson is the internship coordinator for advanced standing MSW students at Loyola as well as the field program outreach coordinator. Both are very familiar with managing difficult conversations and say that it’s a vital tool in order to gain the most benefit out of those tough discussions—and yes, they certainly can produce great benefits.

As Corcoran puts it, there is “room for growth” when mistakes are made, and difficult conversations need to be held in order to make progress. But this will only happen when field supervisors are willing to capture those moments and turn them into teachable opportunities.

Unfortunately, many field supervisors are uncomfortable doing this. Oftentimes they fear confrontation, Corcoran says.

“A lot of social workers do genuinely fear conflict,” Corcoran continues. “But whenever there is conflict, it is generally rooted in miscommunication. It is often that two people are not understanding one another—or they have different perspectives even though they’re trying to achieve the same goal. However, when we are heard and respected, we reach a greater understanding—and that’s valuable for everyone.”

There may be a role that ethnicity plays in all of this, as well. Corcoran says that her ethnicity as a person of color informs much of what she does and that includes often bringing a perspective that others do not share. For this reason, she is particularly aware of being perceived as argumentative when, in fact, she is just bringing a different viewpoint to the table.

“It is important to me to express a viewpoint that the dominant culture may not be aware of or have not considered,” Corcoran says. “I strive to enlighten and invite others to explore their blind spots. Because of my being adamant about doing so, I am sometimes perceived as challenging. For this reason, I am very in tune to what students might be feeling if they are expressing a different viewpoint.”

For these reasons, among others, Corcoran says that instead of calling it “confrontation,” she likes to call it “care-frontation,” because those difficult conversations are coming from a place of caring.

Peterson agrees and says that “we all grow from every conversation that we have.”

In fact, she says that field supervisors would be best served by spending time reflecting on difficult or “uncomfortable” conversations that they’ve had in order to determine areas where they can improve.

“There are always learning opportunities for both students and supervisors in the field,” Peterson adds. “But there are definitely ways that you can approach those difficult conversations that are going to make them go smoother.”

Approaching Difficult Conversations
From the very start of a difficult conversation, the way that field supervisors present themselves can make a difference in the direction of the conversation.

“Body language is really important,” Corcoran says. “Apart from what we say, we communicate a lot with our bodies. So, if someone is listening to you and leaning forward, they seem attentive and engaged. However, if they’re leaning back or they have their arms folded, that is giving off a negative vibe that you are on the defense or not interested. It’s also important to make direct eye contact without staring someone down.”

Peterson adds that it’s important to start those difficult conversations at a place of “strengths.” When you know that you have difficult issues or mistakes to address with the student, don’t start the discussion with a whole list of negatives.

“Focusing on the student’s strengths is really the best way to start a difficult conversation,” she continues. “We all like to hear good things. What are they doing well? I think that if we can reinforce those strengths and provide plenty of positive feedback, the negative feedback will be taken more constructively. It will be regarded as coming from a place of helping.”

It’s also helpful to be intentional about the environment in which you are meeting with a student. For example, Corcoran says that she works in an office environment where interruptions are commonplace. But when starting a difficult conversation with a student she will be intentional about closing her door and also making the student aware that interruptions are a possibility.

“The point is to make sure that the student knows this meeting time is important to you,” Corcoran explains. “You can also achieve this by listening without interrupting as the conversation begins. Listen intently and wait for your opportunity to respond. This demonstrates that you truly respect what they have to say.”

That includes minimal encouragers. Even interrupting to say “Mhmmm” can sometimes be conveyed as, “hurry up and get to the point.” Instead, Corcoran says that an occasional head nod will do.

A Respectful Approach
It’s worthwhile to make a goal of approaching these difficult conversations from a place of respect.

“This means that it is important to be professional, to serve as a good role model, and to utilize respectful tools of communication at all times,” Peterson says. “As you listen to what the student has to say, avoid ‘why’ questions and think about how you are phrasing your inquiries. The goal is never to be accusatory.”

Instead of asking, “Why?” Peterson and Corcoran suggest posing a question such as, “Can you tell me what you were thinking when you did this?” It is a less judgmental way of getting to the bottom of what happened—and potentially, where things went wrong.

Peterson says it also helps to “circle back to learning opportunities” whenever possible.

“You might ask: ‘What would you do differently in the future?’” she says. “It helps to allow students to self-reflect. It’s really important to focus on what you can learn from a situation.”

It can also be helpful, when appropriate, to infuse humor into the conversation.

“I learned early on in my career that humor can be quite valuable,” Peterson says. “If we, as role models, can use appropriate humor in a stressful situation or as a coping strategy, we are providing students with a tool for their own toolbox. This work is stressful, and it can burn you out, but when we’re able to laugh at ourselves, it can help.”

Corcoran agrees and says that the key is to use humor appropriately.

“Never laugh at anyone’s expense,” she says. “But I find that when we can laugh at ourselves or share some of our own mishaps, it can render us vulnerable and create more of a connection with students. It shows empathy—and that’s valuable.”

Along with that, it often helps to share what’s worked—and what hasn’t—for you, Peterson adds.

“You might share about an area you’ve struggled with and what helped you to overcome that,” Peterson continues. “Letting students see that you’ve made mistakes or had roadblocks in your own career is helpful.”

Normalizing Feedback
The entire process of having difficult conversations is an important step in “normalizing feedback,” according to Corcoran and Peterson. This is something that will be beneficial to students in their career as social workers.

“The fact is, students often get uneasy when they are in a meeting and have to hear constructive feedback,” Peterson says. “But it’s going to be part of their careers. So, as field supervisors, if we can normalize that feedback process—even though it’s hard—it’s going to benefit students in the long run. They will see that there are always going to be ups and downs and twists and turns but that these moments help provide them a chance to grow.”

Corcoran agrees and says that sometimes people don’t want to reveal a mistake; they want to be perfect. But helping students see early on that errors are inevitable is important.

“Students often want to portray that they are perfect and don’t want to talk about mistakes but there’s no room for growth that way,” she says. “The supervisor has to be willing and able to capture errors when they happen and make them teachable moments. I look at it as an opportunity for greater understanding. Some people just don’t like to make waves or make other people uncomfortable, but you have to change the way that you look at it and start viewing it as a chance to help your students grow.”

Moving Forward
In the end, the goal is always to move the situation forward. Peterson says that it is possible to create a “win/win scenario” where there can be mutually beneficial action.

“The key is, there does need to be action taken,” Peterson says. “You don’t want the conversation to just end. There has to be some type of action plan. It’s possible that action could be to continue this conversation again if you haven’t gotten to the point you need to. It might also be that you agree to disagree, but you are moving forward. The point is you need to come to some sort of resolution or conclusion.”

Students can reflect on these difficult conversations and hopefully learn from them. In addition, you can also take these conversations as opportunities to learn and improve your ability to manage tough conversations.

“If you’re looking to improve upon your ability to manage difficult conversations, ask someone else to be accountable for you,” Corcoran says. “If you are providing a lot of negative feedback or have trouble with your communication style, such as always crossing your arms, ask someone to point these things out to you. We’re not always aware of our blind spots and would be best served viewing them as an opportunity to improve ourselves, as well.”

— Lindsey Getz is a Royersford, PA–based freelance writer.