Mum and Dad are fighting – what should I do?

Resolving conflict with your partner in front of children can be a harrowing business. My parents were happy to have a domestic in front of my sister and I. When the dust settled, my parents would inevitably deny they had been fighting at all.

“It was only a discussion” my mother would say.

Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 4.57.37 PMThey sure as hell didn’t look like discussions to me, but perhaps they were – my parents never did get divorced. Mr Thesiswhisperer and I are very different. On the rare occasion we have a difference of opinion, we try to do it in private – especially if the difference of opinion is about Thesiswhisperer Jnr.

Sometimes we disagree on what the best course of action is regarding things like appropriate bedtimes on school nights and how long video game rights will be suspended for breakage of iPads. When we disagree profoundly the only thing to do is argue it out have a discussion to hammer out a compromise position.

Usually this position is not what either of us would have done left to our own devices, but once we have a united position that’s the end of the matter. The deal is that each of us has to hold the line in the absence of the other. This parenting logic works for us pretty well most of the time. Thesiswhisperer Jnr doesn’t get conflicting messages and he knows that he can’t play one of us off against the other.

The only time it doesn’t work is if we have not had the argument discussion in advance and one of us makes a unilateral decision that the other disagrees with.

Yeah… then it can get a bit ugly.

You are probably wondering why this long digression on parenting tactics. Well, it was prompted by what feels like the 1000th time I’ve had a discussion with a PhD student about conflict with a supervisor (thankfully not an ANU student, so I could be all care and no responsibility). This particular conversation touched on one of the little discussed, but most common problems in research management: supervisory panel members who don’t get along.

Most students these days will have a primary supervisor and a secondary supervisor to act as sounding boards and advisors. Some at ANU even have a panel of up to 5 other people who regularly look at their work. It can be a good learning experience, not to mention invigorating, to watch your supervisors argue about things like method, content and writing style. It shows you how much everyday academic practice can boil down to subjective individual taste and gives you a range of opinions on possible ways forward.

But there comes a point when inter-supervisor arguments are just not productive. I’ve sat in on at least one meeting where there was awkward silence after yet another intense bout of scholarly fisticuffs. As Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, so wisely said: “the ways of academics wizards are subtle and they are quick to anger’. J.R.R Tolkien, who wrote those words, was a life long academic and I’m sure he drew on his experiences.  Especially the fight between Gandalf and Saruman, where Gandalf has NO idea that Saruman has gone over to the dark side and gets his ass handed to him before enlisting the eagles to rescue him.

Then, when Saruman creates the Orcs …

OK, maybe I’m getting a bit carried away with this analogy.

My point is Anger, when left to fester, can create deep divisions in departments and faculties. Sometimes it seems to me that academics go out of their way to avoid difficult conversations about feelings – conversations that might have done a lot to clear the air.  Certainly it is a bad sign when  supervisors stop arguing with each other and seek alternative, passive aggressive, ways to resolve disputes.

Sometimes one supervisor will declare they can’t work like this and retire from the field, leaving you and your remaining supervisors the problem of finding someone new. Even worse, one or both of the supervisors will try to enrol you in support their individual position. This can take the form of pressure for you to drop the other person, or one supervisor telling the other to leave on your behalf. In either case you are looking at hurt feelings all around.

Once the break up happens, the question then becomes, who are you going to live with after the divorce? Sometimes there is no good answer to that and you end up losing valuable input into your degree. The students who find themselves in this position often fear long standing career damage as a result of taking sides. Senior academics tell me that these fears are usually more imaginary than real. I’d like to believe this is true, but I have seen enough rubbishy behaviour in my time. I’m sceptical about your average academic’s ability to rise above previous conflict. I would advise any student to be careful how they handle themselves in this situation.

The way I see it, in a supervisor you only have a few choices when a break up seems imminent: pick a side or try to maintain neutral stance. I always advise students attempt, wherever possible, to take a neutral stance. If someone has to go because of conflict, try to make sure that the break up is negotiated by the supervisors themselves without your direct involvement. This enables you to remain on friendly terms with the ejected supervisor, which is definitely in your long term interest.

If the fighting just seems to be going on and on, and you are stuck in the middle, it can be difficult to know what to do. Recognising the limits of your ability to change the situation is important, but you do need to ensure that your needs are being taken into consideration. It may be that your supervisors do not realise how their fighting heated discussion is affecting you.

It is your supervisors’ responsibility to keep everything civil and productive. This is where I have to come back to the parenting analogy. Sometimes it’s helpful for students if supervisors thrash out deep differences in private so they don’t keep sending conflicting messages. You may have to suggest this strategy to them. Assertive language can help. I have a flyer on my wall breaks being assertive into 5 steps:

  • Describe the situation that bothers you, being as specific as you can (for instance: “When you two disagree I go back to my desk confused about what to do next”).
  • Express your feelings about the situation (“When I am confused I get stressed I find it difficult to write anything”).
  • Empathize with the position the other person is in (“I realise you both have strong views and want to give me your best advice”).
  • Explain the consequences (“But if I stay this stressed and confused I am going to get behind in my work”)
  • Specify what you want from your supervisors (“It would be very helpful if you could agree in advance on the options which are possible and then explain their advantages and disadvantages in a way that helps us all make a collective decision on what to do”).

Are you experiencing this problem – or have you experienced it? Are you a supervisor who has had to deal with troublesome wizards colleagues while trying to help a student out? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

Related posts

How to tell your supervisor you want a Divorce

Academic assholes and the circle of niceness

21 thoughts on “Mum and Dad are fighting – what should I do?

  1. Excellent post! Please come crusade with me in my HR field! lol One parallel we notice is that if you can’t get your relationships right with your parents (whether that be having cut off or blanket forgiveness, or working on your stuff) and same goes with your partner/spouse, you end up having bad relationships with coworkers and supervisors. Oh dear. I think you give some great advice on how to handle the situation. Sometimes I wonder if people know being cooperative and getting along really can be this easy. Good on ya’.

  2. This really resonated with me. During my honours year my supervisors were not on speaking terms (over an issue that had nothing to do with me) and I used to meet with each individually, get conflicting advice, and then do what I thought was most suitable for my project. Ugly at the time but I think it made me a more mature academic, less dependent on ferdback and forced me to answer my own questions.

  3. Great post! I have a similar problem – that of supervisors who never communicate with each other unless i am the one to arrange joint meetings. Unsurprisingly, they each give me completely different advice. This, however, i quite like. It allows me to see whatever quandary i happen to be in from different perspectives, and to develop my own answers based on a middle ground between their (usually diametrically opposed) pearls of wisdom. I feel like the kid of divorced parents who can play them off against each other to their own advantage!

  4. Great post, as usual. Just wanted to say, I’m glad you’re back – Canada doesn’t have the same summer vacation as Australia (duh!) and I missed the blog (and the motivation to keep plugging away at this PhD thing…)

  5. Just one addition to the metaphor – PhD students do not come into the institution as infants, and once they complete the PhD they’re leaving home as adults. So supervisors could think about the start of the relationship more like becoming co-step-parents to a 15 year old. There’s no easy set of protocols for handling that other than the timeless reality that teenagers may not know everything they think they do, but they will know when they’re being bullshitted and justifiably resent it.

    In general I think routing around conflict inhibits learning, and we underestimate the capability of children and adult students to cope with multiple regimes of value. Supervisors should teach the conflicts and students can either use the conflict strategically like PhD wannabe, or surface it as an issue if it needs movement.

    Great to have you back Inger!

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  7. and what about the reviewers? if reviewers have totally oposite opinions and sugestions about one’s work. how to manage to cope with both?

    • Generally in this case you will have the benefit of an editor to mediate the opposing views and to advise which of the conflicting views they prefer. If not, it is perfectly acceptable to take one approach and to carefully articulate why you did not take the other opposing view. Your justification for not taking the opposing advice should be polite and contain supporting evidence – eg. did not collect that data etc. in my experience editors can also be approached and asked for explicit advice where reviewers comments are contradictory. I have also had advice that one reviewer is wedded to a particular view and that the editor is happy to overlook/ downplay that perspective.

  8. Oh, this is one of those times when I am so, so glad I have the supervisors that I do. I work with both my primary and associate supervisors closely, and they’re usually pretty good at discussing my work and their feedback before our meetings – and if they don’t, differing points of view are always cleared up really quickly. I’ve never once been in a position where I feel I’m being torn between two completely different positions; of course, it helps that they get on brilliantly and work together quite regularly as well. I’ve always known I had great supervision, but posts like this really make it clear that I am one of the lucky ones. I think, though, that my supervision works as well as it does because not only are they fantastic, but I’ve always been able to be honest with them, ask them silly questions and be able to get them to specify exactly what they’re asking for – honesty and clear communication, on both sides of the equation, work wonders. While I’ve never been in the position of having to explain to supervisors that their disagreements affect my work, openness and honesty from the student’s side of things can really help to make the process that little bit less difficult and stressful.

    I know this was a post to assist those students who struggle with opposing supervisors, which I clearly don’t face, but it also helped to reinforce how great my supervision is – always a nice thing to be reminded of when going into your last year of the PhD. So thanks, Inger! It’s good to have you back – I hope you enjoyed your break :)

  9. Very good advice Inger. I think it’s important that the student stay clear about whose responsibility it is to sort out the differences (clue – it isn’t theirs!). But it is their responsibility to tell the supervisors clearly (and, preferably together) how they are being affected by the situation.

    I knew a student one who, in frustration, emailed both her her supervisors at the same time, described how she was experiencing their behaviour, and said she wouldn’t meet with either of them until they had sorted it out – and copied the email to her HoD. That got good results fairly quickly. I was very impressed at the time!

    • I’m impressed too! If they are acting like childen, treat them like children I suppose (I wonder if I am being unfair to children though? most of them are pretty good at sorting out disputes. Adults could learn a few things!)

  10. Hey Inger, really interesting post, so thanks.

    Viewing the relationship between my two supervisors in relation to parental fights was thought provoking. I would liken my situation to the parents having an “amicable” split and staying with the one with the house and furniture, even though you don’t like them much.

    I find myself now in the position of running back to the parent supervisor I left behind to tell them just how bad the other one is and finding they agree with every word and know exactly what I’m talking about! Turns out I actively despise and mistrust my primary supervisor now after what they’ve put me through in the past and because of what’s still happening. But I am coping, and building stronger links with the supervisor I left behind* so hopefully it won’t end in disaster.

    *My primary supervisor moved universities four months after I started my PhD! So I followed them because the project was their idea originally and they had all the money and shiny new equipment.

  11. This happens not just within the context of doing PhD; it happens to research assistants too. Your post brought me back to my RA days. My two former project supervisors were initially in good terms. Both, though, had their respective agendas despite working on similar projects. It later turned out the two had some sort of ‘cold war’. I had to meet them separately just to talk about the project’s progress. I somehow became a listener and heard things about the other party. Funny is that I never saw or felt that they both sat down and talk their differences out a civil manner. What you said, Inger, was spot on – academics have a tendency to avoid difficult conversations. Fortunately, now I’m doing PhD, this is no longer happening to me. At the same time, whichever university I worked in, I tend to feel that academics would have their own foes that they never (dare to) confront. Is this an illusion?

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