Universities are the site of intellectual pursuits. They are also critical for the development of cultural norms in society. Monash University recognised the benefit of giving its staff and students the opportunity to improve their skills in engaging in difficult conversations.
In 2016, Monash University partnered with Polykala to provide training in difficult conversations for its administrative staff, academic staff and students.
Based on the success of Darebin City Council’s active bystander training, which Polykala developed and delivered, the team at Monash University sought to provide a similar training package for their staff and students. The training gave participants the skills and wherewithal to have difficult conversations in the workplace and the community when addressing inappropriate conduct.
Harnessing the different perspectives and experiences in each discussion group, we were able to create an opportunity for participants to learn from each other, rather than simply be taught what they should think. We believe this approach better mimics the realities of being a witness to an uncomfortable interaction, where we’re often confronted with the question of how to make sense of the situation before we can motivate ourselves to do something about it.
The primary aim of the session was to give participants the chance to practise. This means standing up in front of others, feeling uncomfortable, sometimes landing on your feet and finding the right words and other times… not finding the right words. As facilitators and trainers, it is our role to foster an environment where being a beginner is the norm and giving things a try is a moment worth celebrating, regardless of the outcome. In adult education, this is a difficult task. But it is an element of our workshops that we pride ourselves on. The sessions at Monash were no exception. We were able to get academic staff (experts in their fields of research) to put their training wheels back on and play. For this section of the training, we used Forum Theatre, a form of improvisational theatre, that allows participants to step in and out of a scenario, taking on difficult roles within the scene to workshop responses and experience the outcomes of those responses.
The partnership with Monash University consisted of 10 sessions delivered to around 250 participants through 2016-2019.
Across the three cohorts of administrative staff, academic staff and students, we received similar feedback. Participants relished the opportunity to learn from each other, to hear different perspectives on issues that were important to them, and to improve on interpersonal communication skills that we rarely have the opportunity to practise.