So I’m not suggesting that your supervisor is like a small child who throws a strop every time they don’t get their own way (although some might!), but I’ve recently come to the realisation that, as with trying to get toddlers to do what you want them to do, the way you approach a situation (like a supervisor meeting) can definitely make a dramatic difference on the outcome.
I certainly have plenty of practice at toddler wrangling, having two (at times very wilful) 4 year old twin girls. Those of you who have ever looked after kids will probably have tried to calm an emotional meltdown with any number of techniques including shouting, pleading, begging, bribing or even giving in to what they want just for a quiet life. But thinking about it, how many of us have just given in to what our supervisor wants ‘just for a quiet life’. See where I’m going with this….there is a similarity!
A couple of months ago a friend of mine recommended a book to me. Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting (Noël Janis-Norton) leads you through practical techniques to develop a better relationship with your child. After reading the first few chapters one evening, I eagerly began putting some of her suggestions into practice the next morning and to my amazement it was like I had two completely different children getting ready for school! Also after the last Parents@TUOS coffee morning I organised on the topic of positive parenting, delivered by the Multi Agency Support Teams (MASTs), I realised I need to think about how I approach meetings at work as well as engaging with my children.
So here is my suggestion of things to think about before a meeting (which are incidently also key parenting techniques), which I’ve often talked through with my thesis mentees:
1. Identify your priorities
With children you need to choose your battles, and challenge only behaviour that you feel is important to address. Does it really matter, for instance, if they eat their dinner with their fingers? Ultimately they are eating their food!
The same goes for meetings: you need to think about what you want to achieve and identify your priorities, so you can aim to achieve them and don’t leave feeling disapointed. This will mean you are clear in your own mind what you can and can’t negiotiate on. For instance, you might be meeting to discuss a grant application with an imminent deadline. The deadline is the priority as it can’t be changed, but you can be flexible on how the application is completed and how much of the work you agree to do. If you know what you want to achieve, its far easier to get it.
2. Preparing for success
Preparation is key. I’ve made the mistake in the past of asking my girls the question “What would you like for breakfast?” and got the reply “An English muffin with chocolate spread”… neither of which we had in the house… cue massive tantrum. What I now try to do is to prepare myself, think about the conversation beforehand and consider potential options. I give them a choice of a couple of things that I know we have in the kitchen.
Similarly, it is important to prepare for meetings and do some groundwork in advance. Think about what might be discussed, any potential sticking points and and consider the options. A little proactivity and forethought can make a big difference.
A positive approach also works wonders. If I constantly tell my children to stop doing something, the likelihood is they’ll get so fed up of hearing “No”, they’ll do it even more. Equally if you always just go to your supervisor to moan, they may be less responsive to your requests for support in the future.
3. Manage your expectations (and theirs)
It’s important to make sure both parties understand what’s expected of them, so you need to work out what you realistically want them to be doing. Although for me it would be great if my kids could wake themselves up at the right time, get washed, dressed and make their own breakfast, this is unrealistic. Working out with my girls what they think they can achieve themselves and getting buy-in is key to their cooperation.
Similarly it may be unrealistic to expect an academic to review a draft of your thesis 24 hours after you send it to them. How do you know what’s realistic for them? Just ask! You need to plan in advance with them to make sure they aren’t away at a conference or involved in a lot of teaching at the time when you need their support. If they know to expect work from you they’re more likely to review it by the time you agreed. Equally, make sure they aren’t setting too high expectations of you that you can’t possibly achieve.
4. Practise Reflective Listening
A key technique with minimising frustated behaviour of children is to show you are listening and acknowledging their feelings. It is equally important to show to your supervisor what you are understanding from the conversation. So many times I hear from students that they’ve come out of a research meeting and haven’t really understood what was decided or what they should be doing. If you are reflecting back your understanding as you go along in the meeting, it is far easier for your supervisor to know if you are following it.
My final tip for meetings is to write a brief email to the person you have just met afterwards, to summarise the key actions you will be taking from the meeting. That way, not only do you clarify to yourself and them what you understood the plan to be, but also if in the next meeting in a months time they suggest you should have been doing something else, you have evidence to show them what was originally agreed.
So have a go and approach your meetings in a positive, proactive way and see what difference it can make.