Cope with frequent, stressful meetings with a supervisor?
November 2, 2016 12:17 AM   Subscribe

In grad school and must suffer through anxiety-filled weekly meetings with a supervisor. How can I deal?

I’m in a clinical graduate program (speech-language pathology) and have to meet with my supervisor every week. I know that she’s not supposed to praise me and is instead supposed to provide helpful criticism, but I find her management style very off-putting and I dread our weekly meetings. I recognize rationally that this is probably just her shitty supervision style/a personality mismatch, that it’s her job to tell me why I suck, but… I still feel sick to my stomach leading up to our meetings, and struggle not to vomit/cry during these meetings and afterwards. It’s been 2 months and each meeting feels worse than the last.

As far as addressing her directly: she is in control of my grade, I have just 6 weeks left with her, and there’s this culture of “that’s how grad school is.” So I’m just looking for advice on things I can do differently.

Anyway, while I will have a new supervisor next semester, I have to deal with this one in the meantime. I could also have an equally crappy supervisor next semester, so I figure I should learn these coping skills now. I’m anxious before, during, and after each meeting. I exercise the night before, I try to meditate (e.g. during the meeting: “hey, self, sit with this discomfort... ok, yeah, you still want to die”), eat well, remind myself why I’m doing this, etc. Nothing really helps… the only other options I can think of would be therapy and/or medication, and those seem strange when it’s for 1 hour of hell each week. Otherwise, I’m doing well academically (though the program is rigorous, so it’s not been easy) and I pretty much enjoy every other day of the week when I do not have to interact with her.

I appreciate any advice or anecdotes. Thank you very much!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There's nothing wrong with supervisors praising students who have done something praiseworthy - its good practice. As one of the few people you can talk to meaningfully about your work, then you need markers to tell you are going in the right direction (or one of the right directions, sometimes you might need to make a case). Try asking: am I going in the right direction with this? Is the work I am producing at the right level? Come up with other questions which can elicit positive reinforcement (or in case you are going wrong at least give you a warning).

Make sure you are listening too, sometimes students can only see the negative and fail to see the positive. Obviously I can't know if that is the case for you but worth looking out for.
posted by biffa at 2:19 AM on November 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

Therapy and meds aren't a strange reaction to this situation! Just realize that you can give her a bit of an attitude if you have to. As a fellow nice person, you have to realize that mean people aren't going to be like withered by your disdain. What's the worst that could happen; she'll give you a bad grade? PM me if you want to discuss!
posted by benadryl at 3:03 AM on November 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here are a few things I would do, based on similar situations I've experienced:

These type of meetings can feel passive, like you are being talked at and can't do anything about it. Turn that around. Find a small way to take more control in the meeting. Maybe email a couple of days in advance and ask to discuss a specific topic, or offer to come up with an agenda for the next meeting if appropriate.

Try active listening during the session (don't just shut down). Repeat what she says back to her in her own words. If she says "I think you did sloppy work with X." Say "So what I hear you saying is that I was sloppy with X and could improve my work. Do you have any suggestions for how I could do that?"

Based on your scenario (end of semester) I'm not sure if this is worth it, but I'd be tempted to be frank with her! Say "For whatever reason, I am feeling anxious about these meetings. Have you had other students who experienced the same thing? Do you have any ideas of what we could do with the format to make this work better? Could you end each session with telling me one thing I did decently during the week to help me feel more motivated about my improvement?"
posted by beyond_pink at 5:18 AM on November 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

Always, always, always come with a list of questions/things you want to talk about. You're the one learning. You can lessen the amount of "hell" time by taking up that hour block with an actual conversation that might be useful to you rather than being talked at in a way that isn't.
posted by Hildegarde at 6:05 AM on November 2, 2016 [18 favorites]

Is this your first term doing clinical work, or are there other classmates who have had this supervisor that you could talk to? It was always reassuring to hear that supervisor X can be blunt, but your grade still winds up being fair in the end.

If it's yor first term, it's going to get better. Right now you're trying to get a handle on clinical work and your supervisors idiosyncrasies. As you get more experience, the clinical work becomes more natural and it's easier to tailor your work to your current supervisor.

You should also have someone in charge of setting up your clinical placements. In my program (I was AuD, but the speech path program had a similar set up), the coordinator was one of the clinical faculty. I'd set up a meeting with that person. They can probably give you some guidance on working with your current supervisor. It's also good for them to know if the supervisor is truly crappy or just not a good fit for certain personalities, because then they can use the supervisor less frequently, or only with more experienced students who don't need a lot of feedback.

And therapy isn't a bad idea. I think my grad school had free counseling through the psych department (so you'd be working with a supervised student), so that could be a low key way for you to go. You get help while also helping out a fellow student.
posted by ghost phoneme at 6:28 AM on November 2, 2016

It's tough to tell whether what your supervisor is doing is out of the norm or not since you don't really comment about what her specific management style is or provide any anecdotes, but learning how to take criticism constructively is definitely a part of graduate school. That's not to discount your feelings about this, but a lot of graduate students do have a very rough time in the first few months as they learn to adapt to the intensity and expectations of critique in academia - I don't think you're alone in this respect. Therapy is a perfectly normal thing to do to help acclimatize, so don't write that off.

It seems like you're currently taking it very passively (e.g. your supervisor is "telling you" the ways you "suck"), and I would suggest that's the wrong way to go about it. These meetings aren't supposed to be a session where you sit back and watch as your supervisor tears up all of your work - you're actually supposed to engage with the criticism. Like a few other people have suggested, one thing that you can do is lean into the criticism and try to understand specific aspects in which you're lacking so you can work with your supervisor to identify areas of improvement. It's also a chance for you to justify yourself from perspectives your supervisor may not have considered - perhaps you're approaching the problem from an angle that they aren't, and it's your job to explain your argument on why you chose to do the things that you did.
posted by Conspire at 7:17 AM on November 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

I have definitely been known to take a small dose of Klonapin before say, an annual review meeting, a stressful presentation, etc. Meds can really help! Since you've only (ha!) got 6 weeks left, I'd talk to your doctor about a prescription for a benzo. (Make sure you test it out beforehand to see how it makes you feel. 0.125 mg Klonapin takes the edge off for me, 0.25 makes me drowsy, and 0.5 you'll never wake me up.)
posted by radioamy at 8:01 AM on November 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Tricky, and likely not all that uncommon. In terms of anecdotes, many of us have been on both sides of that table in educational and professional situations. An "attacker" who does not see they are attacking, and the "attacked" who often feels powerless to change the situation and instead seeks ways to better endure the attacks.

Three things come to mind immediately:

First and foremost, there is a power dynamic in this situation – "she is directly in control of my grade". How does that manifest? On one hand, you only have six more weeks with her. On the other hand, you are existing in a state of continuous anxiety, to the point of seeking medication.

Have you had prior difficulties with feedback / conflict? Is this an isolated incident, or something that routinely manifests throughout your student experience and/or life?

If it is an isolated incident, then you seem to be attaching some future condition to the present experience. That her feedback is negative, and therefore your grade is likely to be negative, and therefore your future job/earning/happiness/life prospects are likely to be negative?

There's something within you that is triggering an anxiety reaction to her, despite you only have a finite amount of time remaining with her. Since you specifically mention the grade, I would wonder if that is at the root of a powerless feeling. That regardless of the quality of your work, you are under threat of receiving a low mark.

That kind of powerlessness may absolutely manifest as anxiety. As you have dedicated yourself to this programme, you feel this programme will shape your life, the person marking you on your progress is hostile, and therefore you may now feel powerless to achieve what you want – rather, you are along for a ride dictated by a party you see as hostile.

That may not only be anxiety-inducing, but also demotivating.

Secondly, your anxiety may well help manifest the situation. If you feel powerless to change the outcome, then you may be unwittingly accepting the outcome, and therefore helping to create it. If you don't think the quality of your work matters and her decision is arbitrary, has your worked suffered? If you presume she is going to attack you – and you are trapped in a bad pattern – then you may arrive either actively or passively defensive and begin to recreate the cycle.

Often people who consider themselves powerless co-create the situations that perpetuate their disempowerment. If you consider your grade to be arbitrary and the quality of your work slips, she may become more aggressive, which further demotivates you, which causes her to become more aggressive, which further demotivates you, which...

Finally, in terms of something that you can do to proactively reduce your anxiety, that may start with doing something completely different in your next meeting to what you've done in your previous meetings.

Two of the principles of non-violent communication are:

1) Attack, 2) Withdraw, 3) Confide

When you perceived to be attacked, you can either:

1) Attack back, and escalate the situation by making the conversation about the attack, rather than the topic at hand.

2) Withdraw away, and increasing absorb the perceived attack by internalising it. This looks like the mind moving to a place of dutiful endurance.

3) Confide your thoughts. In a non-aggressive manner, that remains focused on the task at hand. Confiding looks like saying what you're feeling, without projecting them (attacking) onto her.

"Before we start this meeting, I want to say that our previous meetings haven't left me with a clear understanding of my work and my progress. While your feedback has been valuable, this week, it would be helpful for me to hear, first, how I am doing, and secondly, if I were graded today, what would that grade be?"

If she provides the same stream of criticism without answering those questions, you can move to the second point of non-violent communication – OFNR.

Observation – "I see that you've identified where I'm falling short, and I appreciate that."

Feeling – "I feel that I'm aware of those shortcomings, and would greatly likely to hear what I'm doing well, so I can compare the two."

Need – "I need you to specifically tell me which parts of my work are strong."

Request – "If you don't have a few examples, can I ask that we wrap this up for now and you can drop me an email when you've had a chance to come back to it?"

There's a few things happening there. The first is that you are moving from a passive recipient of feedback to an active party in structuring it. It's YOUR graduate work, and your mark. She is their to guide you, however, ultimately, it's your job to produce the work.

If you are not structuring your requests for feedback specifically, then you'll get whatever she thinks is most helpful, which may well be different from what you actually need / want to hear.

I'll give you an example. When managing staff, there are two kinds of feedback requests that are most common:

1) "Hey, can I talk to you? I want to know how I am doing. Can you spend a few minutes telling me how I am doing?"

From the staffer's perspective, they are asking a very clear question. "Can you tell me how my performance is a work?".

From the manager's perspective, they are asking a very poorly defined question. "How are you doing... AT WHAT?" If someone asks that question, generally there can be the predilection to focus on the negative, as those are threats that are at the top of mind.

"Yeah, we really need to get that project done and its 3 days behind. Now that I think about, I would really like you to focus more on that. I don't know what you've been doing, but can you please work on your priorities."

By not specifying any dimension to the feedback, the question is open-ended and likely to elicit a top-of-mind response, which may or may not be helpful.

2) "Hey, can I talk to you? I'd be really helpful to know what I am doing well on right now, and where I am falling short? There's a lot on at the moment, and it's not always clear what my highest priority is."

"You're doing very well at managing the vendors. Payments are coming in on time, and I thought we would have a bigger problem with that. Also, your demeanour is great considering that the project is behind. I think you're falling short on cutting off your check-ins quickly. Conversations that are five minutes seem to take half hour. Also, I think you're staying too late in the evening and not getting enough rest."

See the difference? In the first case, a general question receives a general response. In the second, a specific question receives a specific response.

If the problem is that you're feeling powerless, it's time to take back control and do the uncomfortable thing – which is to define the conversation and own it. For you to go to those meetings with a specific agenda – no matter how short or long – and ask that the conversation revolve around what you need to hear, rather than an open conversation that can go any which way depending on how your supervisor feels.

Now, just because you define it does not mean that she will agree. Reversing the communication styles – Attack, Withdraw, Confide – she may well do any one of those. Two of them are not helpful, and in those cases you should feel free to terminate the conversation immediately and follow up with an email that says "We didn't get very far today. Here is what I would like to discuss, can we schedule another time?".

Ideally she confides and says, "You're doing well here. You suck here. I'd give you an A/B/C today." To which you can follow up with "How can I take that C to B? What three things do you need to see to make it happen?"

Generally, poor communications are down to poor definitions of communication. "How am I doing?" IN TERMS OF WHAT?

Further, there's also the diffusion of responsibility, if you are expecting that she will guide you to a high grade, and she is expecting that it's your grade and taking feedback is part of getting there. If that is what's happening, you have given the power of your performance over to her, but she has not accepted it, which may well be generating the powerless feelings that you feel. Because you assume that she is there to take you somewhere that she is not taking you.

Accept the fact that she is not taking you there, and ask her kindly to please help you get there.

Now, you can do all of this, and it can still be shit. You can prepare your feedback list, go in the meeting, confide in her that you need better feedback, and politely structure your requests.

She may come back and be generally terrible and nasty, and do the same thing. If that's the case, you need a plan of action that accounts for her being that way.

If the meeting is truly useless and causing you to degrade performance, walk out. Simply say, "Okay, thank you. I really have to go." and be on with it. Take that power back.

If you get to that point – where you basically have to avoid her and go about your work on your own – then you need to flag that with the department either sooner or later. Maybe she's generally foul, but you have a good mark. In that case, done deal, bad match, life moves on, lesson learned.

If she gives you a shit grade that you feel you don't deserve, then you need to go to the department and say basically that she didn't help you despite repeated requests and you would like your work reviewed by an independent party. "Not to be rude, but this is my future we're talking about and I don't trust that she objectively reviewed my work."

Overall, the consistent theme is that if you are feeling powerless, the key is to take the power back. You may not always win or get what you want, but at least you won't feel powerless and you will start to feel in greater control.

If you want to practice this stuff ahead of meeting here, there are two things you can do:

1) Write down the imaginary conversation that you want to have. Anticipate her responses and then write down your responses. Practice reading them out loud five times (yes five) before the meeting.

2) Alternatively, sit with someone and role play the conversation. You be her, and have them be you, and then switch.

Basically, you want to say the words that you want to say BEFORE getting in the room. Because they may be uncomfortable to say. So you want to do the uncomfortable part before the meeting, and then when you're in the meeting, trust yourself to have a different conversation.

Remember, you may not always win, but you'll rarely feel bad about fighting for your best interests.
posted by nickrussell at 9:23 AM on November 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

Short-acting anti-anxiety meds are ideal for limited, occasional use. People use them to treat fear of flying, for example. I suggest getting a prescription for 7 or 8 of them. (1 to test the effects on a non-work day; the rest for the remainder of your meetings).
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:41 AM on November 2, 2016

Seconding Conspire. Also, Feeling Good has a good section on techniques for dealing with criticism that may help you to feel calmer. You can also try mentally reframing the sessions as a challenge to see how much useful information you can wring out of your advisor in that hour, as opposed to a challenge to demonstrate that you've been doing well.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:00 PM on November 2, 2016

From the OP:
Thank you all so much! I didn’t want to make this question too specific because I was angry when I wrote it, but I’ll address a couple points:

1. I always have with a list of questions, although that tends to be like opening a can of worms. I’ll ask, “hey, could you model how I should do X next time? I’m not exactly sure how to do it.” Then we will watch a video from the session of me NOT doing X (i.e. a part of the video that was irrelevant to my question), she will find 5 things to criticize, and eventually actually answer my question (after I redirect her back to it) in a way that did not necessarily require the previous, unrelated negative feedback… this process almost discourages me from asking questions.

2. I try to actively listen and ask questions after she provides feedback, but sometimes when I ask for clarification, she interprets it as me challenging what she’s saying and gets defensive. For example, I’ll explain why I chose a particular method because of the research discussed in class and she’ll say something like, “Well, in my X years of clinical experience, this never works…” I guess that sounds innocent and helpful, but her delivery is just… hostile. A few of my peers whom she also supervises have noticed her moodiness, so I don’t know if she’s just a human with personal problems affecting her work.

I’m realizing that her supervision style (i.e. quizzing me on what I did incorrectly right after I did it, then talking at me) is different from the type of meeting I envision: an actual, mutual conversation about what I did. It’s hard to address this without making her feel “challenged.” I’d be happy if she answered my questions and listened to my reflection on my experiences (I tend to have a sense for what went poorly, but I don’t have the knowledge base to determine why quite yet… which is why I’m still in school!)

The weird thing is that during my mid-semester evaluation, she said I was “right where I was supposed to be,” so I’m not too concerned with my grade.

After much reflection, I’m thinking the real reason that she provides poor feedback is because she’s not actually watching my sessions, so she clings to one small thing — or a constellation of small things when I bring one to her attention — just to prove that she’s “supervising” me in some capacity.

I suppose my real question was how to deal with a difficult person whom you cannot avoid and who is in charge of you so you have to respect. Thanks again for the thoughtful responses!
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 10:14 PM on November 2, 2016

After much reflection, I’m thinking the real reason that she provides poor feedback is because she’s not actually watching my sessions, so she clings to one small thing — or a constellation of small things when I bring one to her attention — just to prove that she’s “supervising” me in some capacity.

Speaking as a supervisor, I'm sorry you have to put up with this.

That said, it gives me an idea. Could you email her ahead of time with your one or two key questions, identifying approximately the point in the video where they occurred? So something like "I am trying to work on X, and I wasn't sure if that was effective this time - it was about 10 minutes into the session" (or if you can give the exact time stamp).

This would give her something very quick and easy to do to prepare (without having to watch the whole video, which she is apparently(!) unwilling to do). Since it's a lazy option that will also make her feel like a useful supervisor, I'm betting she'll do it. And then since she's prepared, she'll have some advice on that rather than whatever thing she happens to stumble across while scrolling through video and seeing it for the first time in your meeting.
posted by forza at 4:44 AM on November 3, 2016

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