Crucial Conversations: Talking to Students about their Violations

Topics: Blog, Research

It’s not easy to talk to people about their errors, whether those people are students who violated academic integrity or employees whose performance did not meet expectations. When people receive feedback they perceive as negative, criticism of a choice that was made, or simply have a less than positive experience, it “sticks in [their] minds” and they “just perseverate on it”, according to Dr. Alison Ledgerwood of UC Davis.

I get this.

I had a fantastic childhood and loving parents, but when I narrate my most vivid childhood memories, they are often of those moments that I perceived as painful or negative at the time. I often wondered why my memory is better at retaining the negative than the positive. Dr. Ledgerwood says that “evolutionary, this tendency for our minds to focus on negative information, to perseverate on them, could have been very adaptive in our ancestral path” – in other words, if we remember the location where we saw a predator, we’d be able to avoid it and stay alive. This ancestral brain doesn’t always work well for us now though because those survival skills are not as necessary and so instead, we ruminate on the negative too often and for too long rather than capturing and reflecting on it just long enough to learn from it.

It also means that having conversations about a “negative event” (like an allegation of cheating) can be extremely painful for people. And, if these conversations are painful, how can they be productive or helpful?

According to Crucial Conversations, people cannot have these conversations if they don’t feel safe. This aligns with Dr. Ledgerwood’s theory that our focus on the negative or scary is hard-wired into our evolutionary trajectory. It also aligns with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which reminds us that people have to feel safe before they can focus on higher level things like morality or integrity.

If people do not feel safe, they cannot hear you – they will either want to fight or flee (violence or silence, in Crucial Conversations language). People will feel more safe when you’re delivering bad news if, as the deliverer of that news, you: are clear on your positive intent for having the conversation (e.g., to achieve results for the person, for yourself, for the organization); have separated the facts from the stories you might otherwise tell yourself; and then you share those facts, speaking tentatively, while asking for the other person’s path or story and encouraging testing of the ideas. You can also make the other feel safe if you are able to create a “mutual purpose”, that is searching for a goal that will benefit all involved.

These ideas of safety, positive intent, focusing on the facts, speaking tentatively, asking for the other person’s path, testing of ideas, and creating “mutual purpose” all seem to be incorporated into the practice of Restorative Justice, which has been gaining ground in the non-academic student conduct side of higher education and seems to be just picking up traction on the academic integrity side of the house. However, not all of us are ready for Restorative Justice yet.

So, I’m wondering – could the fundamentals of Crucial Conversations be utilized in more traditional resolution meetings (i.e. where you go over the evidence with the student and the student is assigned sanctions if responsible)? If so, what could that look like? Have you incorporated any of these fundamentals into your conversations with students?

Let’s start this crucial conversation in the comments section below.

About the Author
Tricia Bertram Gallant, Ph.D. is the author of Academic Integrity in the Twenty-First Century: A Teaching and Learning Imperative (Jossey-Bass, 2008), co-author of Cheating in School: What We Know and What We Can Do (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), editor of Creating the Ethical Academy: A Systems Approach to Understanding Misconduct & Empowering Change in Higher Education (Routledge, 2011), and section editor for the Handbook of Academic Integrity (Springer, 2016). She is the Director of the UC San Diego Academic Integrity Office and Board Member of the International Center for Academic Integrity, and has been an ethics lecturer with the Rady School of Management. When Tricia blogs, the content is hers and should not be attributed to her employer or ICAI.
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