“Third Thinging” Difficult Conversations in Residence Life

Even after a year as an assistant hall coordinator, difficult dialogues sometimes scare me. I attribute this fear to growing up in Iowa and my instinctual reflex of avoiding conflict at all costs, and its reinforcement through 23 years of “Iowa nice.” If you have not heard of “Iowa nice,” there are other midwestern variations (“Minnesota nice,” etc.) to which you might be familiar. Wikipedia defines “Iowa nice” as, “a cultural label used to describe the stereotypical attitudes and behaviors…particularly in terms of friendly agreeableness and emotional trust shown by individuals who are otherwise strangers.” All of this to say, I had anticipated shying away from conflict and difficult dialogues for at least the foreseeable future, that was until I came to residence education.

Whether one is serving in an on-duty rotation, investigating conduct violations, or giving their own RAs feedback, engaging in difficult conversations can bring up a lot of emotions. When dialogue surrounds tough subject matter like identity, feedback, or current events, it can be difficult to know where to begin the conversation. Especially as a young professional, you know how important it is to have discussions about factors that impact the student experience, but there is still a fear that if you make a mistake or don’t say the “right” thing, you could impose harm on students. Furthermore, as a white, cisgender woman, I am always cautious of how my own identities and experiences will show up in difficult dialogues. I was particularly aware of my identities when I began a course entitled Multiculturalism this semester.

As a class, we explored different methods of engaging in challenging conversation including case studies about the work environment, speaking with others who may hold different opinions than us, and developing skills to help students navigate emotionally demanding conversations on their own. In higher education, I think we frequently assume a woke persona when it comes time to engage in difficult conversation, so I was concerned about how this would show up in our classroom. Whether this is a coping mechanism or an aspiration of ourselves, this front often denies the reality of our current state of emotions, primarily that of questioning, confusion, and doubt, creating space for inadequacy and inauthenticity to creep in.

While our class spent the entire semester learning different ways to engage in difficult conversation, my favorite method is something our professor, Dr. Sherry Watt, calls “Third Thinging.” The premise of “Third Thinging” is straightforward. Before beginning “Third Thinging,” it is important to note that individuals in conversation should bring their whole selves to the interaction, respecting their own experiences and identities, as well as the other person’s. To “Third Thing” the subject, the two speakers place the conversation topic between them, focusing on the subject matter instead of their individual opinions or experiences. By “Third Thinging” or centering the issue, the participants of the conversation are welcome to engage freely, together focusing on understanding the topic, instead of “winning” the conversation or bringing another individual to “their side.”

Within my work in residence education, I’ve found the idea of Third Thinging to be useful with my coworkers, RAs, and in roommate mediations. It’s a great way to work together to solve an issue instead of arguing to voice an opinion. What methods of communication have you found useful when dealing with difficult conversations in residence education?

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