Michigan Engineering News

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“The Coach Is In” conversation on civil discourse

Four panelists offer guidance on de-escalation and empathy during stressful situations.

Written by Pauline Bary Khan, EdD, academic program director, engineering lecturer development and lecturer IV in Engineering Undergraduate Education

Staying grounded and simply being human right now is not easy. Furthermore, trying to find ways to communicate in healthy, productive ways to maintain civility at home and work can be complex.

To try to address such matters, 90 Michigan Engineering staff members attended an event on the topic of civil discourse as a part of “The Coach is In” series, featuring a diverse panel moderated by Dr. Heidi Sherick.

After collecting thoughtful comments and questions from the attendees about their experiences, panelists Tina Truskowski, Byron Roberts, Jennifer Judge Hensel and I explored the difficulties of holding sensitive and difficult discussions, often related to politics or religion, with colleagues and family members.

The panelists shared perspectives and insights based on their own experiences.

Judge Hensel suggested approaching discussions with the intention to put others first, learn, and lead with empathy, seeking not to convince, but to understand. She also referenced the CLARA Method to de-escalate situations as a framework for approaching sensitive or difficult topics.

Truskowski offered a helpful mental checklist, which included questions such as why engage? What is the desired outcome, have I checked my biases, and am I coming to the meeting with open ears, mind and heart?

“It’s about approach and speaking in the common language that binds us,” Roberts said. He added that having an existing relationship is often essential for a productive conversation about a difficult topic. Roberts emphasized the importance of setting and timing; for example, it doesn’t work well to surprise someone in the hallway with a challenging question when there are only two minutes to talk.

My personal suggestion is to remember it is a choice to engage or not engage, and that using humble inquiry language such as “I would like to understand you,” or “I would like to hear you, but I may not always understand,” can be effective.

Sherick encouraged attendees to find the common good and stay in inquiry.

During times of high stress, these recommendations are just one more way for us to build understanding and to help create spaces for meaningful, constructive, civil dialogue.

The titles of the other panelists are Jennifer Judge Hensel, executive director of communications & marketing, Byron Roberts, deputy chief of staff and Tina Truskowski, director of human resources.

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