As a support coordinator, it can be anxiety-inducing to have difficult conversations about concerning behavior and the dynamics between a student and their host family. Sometimes we focus on the tension, the feelings of mistrust and anger that often present themselves at the beginning of the conversation. We easily forget that often these conversations, as difficult as they feel, conclude with greater understanding and appreciation for those involved.
Difficult conversations often result in a sense of relief and groundedness, because expectations are clarified and methods for reaching said expectations are given. Difficult conversations are often an opportunity for both parties to recommit to the exchange experience through finding intentional ways to reach out to one another and build towards common goals and interests.
As a Liaison, Support Coordinator or another support volunteer, entering these conversations from the mindset of believing in the best possible outcome and the best intention of all involved will help set the tone of the meeting. You are a valuable presence in changing the energy and the potential course the relationship will take.
Sometimes, a conversation may conclude with the severing of a relationship and it is healthy to openly recognize that this can be a painful process. As a support volunteer, you can offer hope that lessons have been learned, and new growth has taken place in spite of the immediate uncomfortable feelings. You can remind students that it takes strength to be willing to engage in a difficult conversation and that many adults struggle with this important life skill!
- Begin the conversation with valuing the effort everyone has made to date. >> g. Thank you all for meeting this evening. I know it has been a difficult past two weeks. I appreciate you making the effort to come together and talk about these difficult issues.
- Let all parties know the format of the meeting. >> g. We are going to hear of your understanding of the experience from each one of you. We are then going to allow some time for each of you to respond to one another’s perspectives. Then we are going to discuss concrete ways we can resolve this or what are the next steps.
- Depending on how volatile the situation, it can be helpful to set up some ground rules of communication. Several examples:
- Ask parties to talk from their perspective I statements.
- Ask parties to give each other the respect of listening to each others’ points of view.
- Acknowledge that parties may be hearing difficult information, maybe for the first time.
- Ask everyone to assume the best possible message in what they are hearing. Especially when conversations are had across language barriers and cultural differences, information can be interpreted differently than how it was intended.
During the Conversation
- Sometimes parties struggle to openly communicate to one another. Asking everyone to communicate so you can understand what the current reality is helps both parties to open up and feel heard.
- Throughout the conversation, you can assist both parties through helping them reflect, clarify, rephrase, reframe, and supporting what they share. E.g.
- Reflect: So what I hear you saying is….
- Clarify: Help me understand what you mean by….
- Rephrase: So, "Joe or Jane" has always been lazy?Rephrasing, something as an extreme, can help parties separate the emotion they are feeling from the reality of what actually happened.
- Refreame: This is about a commitment to AFS culture learning for all involved. Then point out that successful adaptation is a trial and error process. Some errors are expected. The trick is to view the challenges as learning opportunities. From that viewpoint, objectionable behaviors become mutual problems to solve, not personality defects or manifestations of ill will.
- Support: Thank you for sharing. I know that was difficult and required courage on your part. Thank you for listening. I know that wasn’t easy to hear.
Help the Process in Other Ways
- Summarizing at different times to see how far you have come in the conversation. Sometimes it is hard to determine when the group is ready to move on to a resolution/action stage. Summarizing points helps to determine if more needs to be said on the current topic or if people are ready to move on.
- Take notes so you can go back to points made earlier in the conversation. This is especially useful when the group is ready to shift to steps that need to be taken. g >>, In summary, I have heard some things that each of you would like to see changed.
- Offer writing materials so the parties can choose to collect their thoughts and communicate with you and others in multiple ways.
- List those areas of change and talk about each point to see if a compromise can be achieved.
This can be a time when the notes taken or the list mentioned above can be turned into a document that summarizes what was accomplished during the meeting and records the commitment to make the changes the parties have agreed to.
However, if the situation does not improve by verbal discussion and meetings as described herein, and the parties seem to be heading toward a host family change, it may be time to implement a Support Tool. If you are a Liaison, you should discuss any wish to use a Support Tool with your Support Coordinator who will communicate with the team’s assigned Participant Support Specialist in the New York AFS office. Your Support Coordinator and Participant Support Specialist will be able to assist in the creation of a Support Tool. The Plan for Success is a useful tool to give the participant a chance to really consider the issues, define their goals, and utilize the relevant AFS Learning Objectives. The end product is a participant developed Plan for Success, a written document that has participant ownership. It is written to address host family concerns as a plan of action that the host family is willing to help the participant accomplish. Signatures by all parties attest to their commitment. This document is sent to the team’s Participant Support Specialist for review and to the partner country and natural parents for their assistance in helping the student succeed.
- Note when people are getting weary. Ask if people need a break. It is always good to have water and tissues around. Decide if you can have the whole conversation in one sitting. You might need to come back in a day or so, or meet with parties individually before reconvening.
- Allow for silence. In general, the United States culture tends to be very verbal. Encourage people at the beginning and through the session to take time to collect their thoughts. If you are comfortable with silence, this will allow others to be as well. In many cultures, silence is a sign of respect, particularly to elders. It is not a sign of disinterest.
- Be aware of the power dynamics in the room. Even if it very clear that the student has played a major role in creating the conflict, remember this student is in a room full of adults. Given the student's natural family culture it might be very hard for the student to express his or her perspective. Making sure the student has time to express their needs and thoughts is key. Talking to the student individually before a group meeting can be helpful. Then if the student is hesitant to express themselves in the group, you can say >> g, I know you’ve mentioned some good points to me in the past that I think your host family would find useful.
Ending the Conversation
- When ending the session thank everyone for their time. Often people leave feeling positive about the resolution though exhausted from the emotional energy invested. Encourage people to take care of themselves whatever that looks like for them. Students should do their best to refrain from calling their natural family right away to discuss the conversation and should instead do some self-reflection or talk to someone in their host community.
- Normalize: Once you are finished with the difficult conversation it is not helpful to rehash the conversation in a casual manner. Talk about something else, for instance, the host mother's hobbies, or the student’s interests. This allows everyone to know that you are relating to them as people outside the context of a conflict situation.
- Lastly, for your own objectivity and sanity remember you are a coach. You are helping with a communication process. However, the communication and interaction lie in the hands of the parties. Allow them to take responsibility for their role.
These conversations are the crux of our mission towards peace-making. The skills you model on effective conflict management impact the kind of community members we can choose to be in the world. Thank you for your very important role in the lives of our students and host families.