You know the story:
You hop on a plane to visit someplace nice. Upon arrival you’re greeted by some dignitaries and designated representatives with a relaxing meal, mostly smiles, small talk, and some jokes.
But then at some point in the discussion, you realize that you have something they want.
Before you know it you’re thrown in a van, driven somewhere, dumped off someplace you may have been before but are not really sure. The door slides shut as the van drives away and you’re ushered into a building with a long hallway full of nondescript marked doors. Eventually you reach the door your captors intend and it opens.
Inside you see shiny steel instruments, chemical mixing devices, intimidating machinery, and the hum of electronics. Somebody shouts something in a foreign language. You’re thrown in a chair, tied down, the bag goes over your head, and it begins….
A pause. GASP!!! breaths of air….
“Do we understand eachother?”
(head nods affirmative)
(just as eyes start rolling back into head)
It stops. GAAAAASSSPPPP!!! breaths of air… cough cough…. more air….
(head nods negative)
Thankfully you’re returned to the hallway. But to your horror, it wasn’t just the one door, it’s the first of a series!!! As the day goes on, the same treatment over and over again, you get to the point where you’re not sure you can take anymore.
Finally you hear the question that tells you they’ve finally gotten to what they want:
“Are you ready to write the check?”
A little while later you wake up in a hotel room, dazed, wondering what happened. This place ain’t the same anymore. On the flight back home you tell yourself to watch the drinks if you ever go back. The bank account took a hit, but it’s not worth calling to figure out.
While this is an exaggeration of a donor/industry visit to a university like WSU, we still end up waterboarding people figuratively with thoughts and words instead of water, and there are enough parallels between actual visits and waterboarding to warrant rethinking how we welcome our invited guests to campus. I’ve seen too many of my very good colleagues and friends, who are not malicious people, engage with this sort of visitor treatment to know that it’s an easy trap–may’be even the default. So why does this happen and how do we evolve to something better?
I’ve written before about the drivers of authoritarian memes in the Academy and how these take a toll on our collective community. Everything about our system drives the PI/Faculty/Teacher to feel the need to guide the discussion and captain the space. Moreover, folks are seldom taken to our spaces. We’re desperate for validation of our hard work. We feel the need to impress our guests. Impulsively, and almost freely, outpour our words like so many other involuntary bodily functions. But wait! You were good! Your presentation was exciting, passionate, and held their attention through the allotted time. Sure enough, your waterboarded guests don’t have anymore questions.
One of our recent events on campus hosted a group of industry representatives on a recruiting visit. The first two tours didn’t allow them to talk to any potential recruits. Clearly we did not spend enough time figuring out what our clients and customers needed to see.
Here’s a thought. Try starting your discussion with an invitation of participation. “We generally do _____. How does this relate to you and what you want to hear/see? (i.e. what do you want me to say?)” I’ve written how this has helped with funding/program managers in the past. One of my friends, Dr. Chuck, starts these visits by immediately getting to the point. His opening line is, “So are you planning to write a check? (pause) Now that’s out of the way, let’s have a real discussion about what you want to hear.” Richard Feynman had similar techniques for other pursuits.
But it’s more than just getting the ask in a better place. It’s about HOW the exchange happens.
How many of you have a comfortable seating and conversation area near your lab spaces? You might find that discussions are an important precursor to what actually happens in the lab. It’s also a great way to find out how your audience needs to receive the information.
How many of you let your students guide the discussion? Could it be that the alumni, industry, and program managers are actually more interested in your students than you? Probably so. We’ve reached a point in my lab where the students will improvise and adapt their discussions with the clients. All I have to do is jump in with funny anecdotes now and then. It’s a great place to be!
When we start having more real conversations with our stakeholders, getting them involved with what they care about, and asking them real questions about how we will work together, we might find that people want to spend more time with us; that they actually like us, need us, feel understood, and want more. That’s a much better place to be than holding the water bucket.