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Doctor and supervisor talking in corridor

How to navigate difficult discussions with your supervisor

Managing conflict can be particularly challenging if there is a power imbalance between yourself and with the person you are experiencing conflict. Explore the issues with this factsheet.

Monday, 25 March 2024

Quick guide

  • You should act promptly but be well prepared if the need for a difficult discussion arises with your supervisor.
  • Always behave respectably, focus on the issues - not the people involved.
  • If the conflict cannot be resolved seek advice.


Difficult discussions occur in most work and training environments. These can be particularly challenging if there is a power imbalance between yourself and the person you are speaking with. If handled effectively, these discussions can be a valuable growth opportunity and can result in a better working environment for all the parties. If handled poorly, or worse, ignored, the issues can escalate into a significant conflict situation, which can seriously damage the working environment. For more information on conflict generally see our factsheet: Dealing with conflict in the workplace

Developing skills to identify and manage disagreements in the workplace is important and worth taking the time to consider. Many workplaces may already have established processes for dealing with conflict situations, so it is useful to check with your clinic or department administrator regarding current policies and protocols that may be in place.

Common issues

Common situations that can lead to a difficult discussion between a doctor and their supervisor include:

  • a patient or staff complaint
  • a performance management discussion
  • a performance appraisal
  • for junior doctors, a supervisor report or issues about mentoring, clinical supervision or being a referee
  • disagreement about a clinical diagnosis or treatment plan
  • fatigue issues
  • irregular meetings, resulting in limited opportunity for feedback on performance
  • an expectation to work after-hours shifts and do the ‘on call’ roster on an unequal basis
  • terms and conditions of employment, such as leave entitlements or an entitlement to paid overtime
  • inappropriate communication
  • disputes over timeliness.

Tips for approaching a difficult discussion

The best advice for negotiating a difficult discussion with your supervisor is to take your time to think about the issue(s) and to prepare before approaching your supervisor.

Don't ignore the situation

There is some truth in the phrase ‘you should pick your battles’, and, in some circumstances, you may decide not to follow through with an issue you have. That said, if the situation is causing you distress and restricting your ability to do your job, undertake your training requirements or to learn, you need to act.

Put yourself in your supervisor's shoes 

Understanding, empathy and respect are key attributes and behaviours in conflict situations. Always be open to trying to understand your supervisor’s point of view. Don’t burn any bridges by acting hastily, be respectful at all times and be mindful of acting on assumptions that may be incorrect. Avoid letting misunderstandings escalate out of control.

Share the problem with a trusted friend or colleague

Do you have a good perspective? Are your emotions clouding your judgement? Be prepared for the possibility that the problem may be you. A close friend or colleague should be able to assist you in looking at the situation more objectively and help you identify your role in the relationship. It also helps to be able to verbalise your concerns and run through the discussion.

Consider an informal chat

We recommend planning the discussion with your supervisor. Contact them and explain that you would like to meet with them, outlining what you would like to talk about (this can be done by email if you prefer). Preparation such as this helps set the right tone for a discussion and avoids the situation where your supervisor feels ambushed because they have not had the opportunity to prepare. Remember, nobody reacts well if they feel backed into a corner.

Choose an appropriate time where your supervisor is more amenable to listening and there are as few time pressures or other distractions as possible. A neutral venue is usually a good option, which is away from other people. Before you speak with your supervisor, think about the issues and your own understanding of them. Having the issues clear in your mind will help you articulate them better, especially in situations where you may be nervous. Try to objectively assess the situation by removing your emotional response from the issues. Prepare well for the discussion, have concrete examples of your concerns and issues and be specific. 

If possible, be ready to suggest solutions to the problem and offer to be part of the solution.  Use ‘I think’ and ‘I feel’ statements. Focus on the issues, not the personalities and do not lay blame. Once you have outlined your position be prepared to listen to your supervisor's response and try not to become defensive. Discussion can quickly become adversarial and listening to the others perspective, in our experience is one way to minimise this risk. Make a file note recording the issue and the steps you have taken to try and resolve it.  If appropriate, send your supervisor an email summarising the matters that you discussed and agreed upon.

Escalate as necessary 

If the outcome of the informal process is unsatisfactory you may need to consider a more formal approach. This could include gathering more information then seeking advice from the hospital administration or human resources department and following the dispute guidelines within the institution. If you have pursued these avenues and the conflict can’t be resolved between you and your supervisor, then you may consider seeking help from your training college, or you can seek legal advice.

Look after yourself throughout this process. Get support from colleagues, DHAS or other services as needed. Avant has a list of available services here: Key support services - Avant by doctors for doctors

More information

For medico-legal advice, please contact us on nca@avant.org.au or call 1800 128 268, 24/7 in emergencies.

Disclaimers


IMPORTANT:
This publication is not comprehensive and does not constitute legal or medical advice. You should seek legal or other professional advice before relying on any content, and practise proper clinical decision making with regard to the individual circumstances. Persons implementing any recommendations contained in this publication must exercise their own independent skill or judgement or seek appropriate professional advice relevant to their own particular practice. Compliance with any recommendations will not in any way guarantee discharge of the duty of care owed to patients and others coming into contact with the health professional or practice. Avant is not responsible to you or anyone else for any loss suffered in connection with the use of this information. Information is only current at the date initially published.

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