So last week at work I sent out an e-mail blast to all of our graduate students advocating the dossier management service Interfolio. Essentially, you can upload any documents you want (including confidential letters of recommendation that your recommenders upload to your account themselves via a secure link) and then when you apply to a position that wants a dossier, you can select via checkboxes which documents/letters you want sent, and Interfolio does it for you. This is nice because you don’t have to print out everything yourself or worry about where the nearest post office is.
I highly recommend this service.
Then a faculty member e-mailed me and cc’ed the director of our graduate programs, essentially creaming me for having given advice to their graduate students without checking with her (!) or the graduate director first. She explained to me in painstaking detail how letters of recommendation and other dossier-documents must be specifically tailored to the position you’re applying for. She stated that this site might be appropriate for “the business world” (by which she means my staff position) but that this was not at all the thing in the realm of academia. She ended her e-mail by saying,
“I don’t mean to sound quarrelsome, but I think you are on a wavelength that is different from doctoral education.”
Now, in my ordinary life, I might just call her a bitch and decide never to talk to her again. However, she is a faculty member that I will have to continue to work with, and whose graduate students I will advise. I needed her, not just to tolerate me, but to be on my side. So I needed to bring all my skills as a social artist to bear on this woman who, under other circumstances, was unbearable. Here’s what I did:
- I started off by saying, “Thanks for your feedback!” Start by assuming the best of the other person – she has no personal investment in tearing me down. She cares about her graduate students and wants them to have good advice at their disposal.
- I pointed out that I am graduating this semester with a PhD from a program that is ranked top 5 in its field and this is the resource they recommend to their job seekers. I don’t think that this person knew that I had a PhD, nor that I had done a nationwide academic job search – it was important for me to let her know that I’m not just some person recommending something I saw on the internet, nor was I trying to make a recommendation across totally different industries. We were peers. I reinforced this perception of peers having a discussion by calling her by her first name in the e-mail.
- I explained the service I had recommended in more detail. This person is a bit of a Luddite in any case, so I think she was wary just because it is an internet-based thing in addition to any concerns she had about me. My original e-mail to the list did not include enough details to alleviate her concerns about privacy and other issues.
- I asked for her advice on a related issue. In my experience, nothing disarms someone faster than asking for their advice. Particularly professors who are used to giving it!
- I acknowledged that my experience with her specific field was limited and that I had perhaps made an inappropriate generalization. While I stood firmly by some aspects of my original recommendation, it did turn out that the site, while generally useful for letters of rec, would not work for the type of student that I advise here.
- I complimented her. I told her that it was a great thing for the students that they had someone so involved and invested in their success, and that I had learned a great deal about her field based on our exchange.
- I urged her to continue to give me feedback on my performance. This can be tough (though easier to pull off over e-mail than in a live exchange), but especially if you want to not just assert that you are correct, but actually change the other person’s mind to your way of thinking, it is important to be a little humble.
It took one more exchange after that, but it ended up with 1) a positive response to the question I asked her advice on, 2) her saying that I should offer a brown bag for graduate students who are interested in broadening their options to include non-faculty positions (!) and 3) her asking me politely for a favor.
It doesn’t get better than that, especially after I forwarded the e-mail to the BF and he said that 1) he never could have been that polite to someone who had initially been so rude to him, and 2) he took my idea of asking a higher-up who was being slightly antagonistic for advice that same day, and the person’s attitude toward him totally changed, too!
That is why Lance and I are such proponents of social artistry. It’s not (just) about tricking people into sleeping with you. It’s about moving with ease through your life, and (apparently effortlessly) turning adversaries into advocates.
If this post convinced you to take my side, too, you might also enjoy: