Book by Jennifer Abrams
Review by Adva Steiner Waranyuwat
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Having hard conversations. I imagined the myriad ways in which learning about this topic would improve my advising. Believing this book would serve as a practical guide of methods and techniques to assist me when I have hard conversations with students, I was keen to read it. I did not, however, get that kind of information from this book. Thus, it could be argued that the book’s title is vague and could provide more detail on what’s in store for the reader. What I did find, however, was an in-depth and highly practical method for having hard conversations with my professional peers and officemates. In regards to the subject, layout and effect of this guide, I was left with mixed feelings on its utility as a resource for academic advisors.

The topic of having hard conversations with fellow professionals is ubiquitous and occurs in all educational institutions. Abrams (2009) masterfully addresses the importance of conducting these kinds of conversations. She does not minimize the courage it takes to initiate a difficult conversation and provides an immense repository of techniques, questions and examples to help someone who is deciding how to proceed. One of the great strengths of this guide is the subject’s relatability to people from any professional background. On the other hand, all of the scenarios in this book are designed for K-12 teachers. The book is written and intended for an audience of teachers, not advisors. For example, Abrams describes the ways in which assessing teacher effectiveness can be accomplished, and this was very specific to classroom behaviors, many of them at the K-12 level (p.39). There are many examples that can be inferred for advising, but there are no direct interpretations of situations relevant to professionals in a college or university setting.  

Still, this book progresses through thoughts, behaviors and examples that ultimately prepare the reader to conduct a difficult conversation. The basic premise behind this preparation is the Get Clear-Craft-Communicate Process (p. 97). Through anecdotal and some theoretical information, Abrams anticipates and addresses seemingly every possible pitfall or obstacle to having a difficult conversation. She offers ideas for how to actually conduct a hard conversation. 

This book provides scaffolding to help people who greatly struggle with issues of confrontation and asserting opinions. However, the immense detail can feel, at times, somewhat constrictive and scripted. Abrams also dedicates a chapter to examining the reasons why someone would prefer not to have a hard conversation (Ch. 2) and much of that seemed unnecessary for the larger purpose of the book. For advisors who have interpersonal skills and understand how to approach their peers in a professional manner, many of the lessons in the book may seem intuitive and redundant. 

On the other hand, advising supervisors can benefit from the recommended preparation methods for a difficult conversation, including models for an outcome map (p. 55), questions to ask oneself at any stage of planning (Ch. 3), conversational styles (p.85) and different scenarios for complicated discussions (p. 87). For supervisors, or individuals who struggle to have their voices heard in the office setting, this book will help to create a solid plan of action for having a hard conversation. 

Having Hard Conversations (2009) Book by Jennifer Abrams. Review by Adva Steiner Waranyuwat. London: Sage Publications. 152 pp. $28.95, ISBN # 978-1-4129-65002
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