Library Leadership

12. Effective Difficult Conversations with Author Catherine B. Soehner

Have you ever had to have a difficult conversation at work? If so, you’re not alone. In an information landscape where change is the status quo, these conversations come with the territory. Being a library leader means knowing how to confidently steer these conversations so that they lead to productive results. On this episode Catherine Soehner, author of the book Effective Difficult Conversations, teaches us how.

Catherine Soehner is the Executive Director of the Eccles Health Sciences Library and is the Associate Dean for Research and User Services at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library.  She provides vision and leadership for a wide range of library services delivered onsite and virtually.

Full Transcript

Nate Vineyard:                    [00:00:00]

This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management from Emporia State University where library leaders are created, with program sites in Kansas, Utah, Oregon, Colorado, and South Dakota, and, by the Park City library, making film and podcasting possible with green screen and sound recording resources.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:00:29]

Have you ever had to have a difficult conversation in the workplace? As today’s fast-paced society changes and our information world strives to keep up, these conversations happen more, and more often. Catherine Soehner, the Director of the Eccles Health Sciences Library at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library, has written a book to help all of us called, Effective Difficult Conversations: A Step-by-Step Guide. She helps us prepare for when this needs to happen, to make sure that there are no hurt feelings, resentments, or worse.

Welcome, Catherine.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:01:10]

Thank you for having me. I’m so honored to be here.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:01:13]

Oh, it’s great to have you. And, I’m thrilled to be talking about your book today, which is called, Effective Difficult Conversations: A Step-by-Step Guide.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:01:22]


Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:01:23]

And, we should give a shout out to your co-author.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:01:25]

Yes, Ann Darling, thank you so much for all the help that you’ve given me, and in preparation for this book and for all the many presentations, we’ve given together. Ann is fantastic.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:01:37]

Your partner in crime.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:01:39]

That’s my partner in crime. It’s true.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:01:41]

Hi, Ann. We’re sorry you couldn’t be here with us today, but we’re having a great time, and your work is fantastic. So, thank you.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:01:48]


Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:01:49]

Well, we’ll jump right in on the book.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:01:51]


Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:01:51]

Effective, difficult, conversations, how important is that?

Catherine Soehner:           [00:01:55]

It’s so important for any leadership position. You can’t avoid them. You’re going to have to tell somebody something that is likely to be unwelcome news.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:02:05]

Yeah, and in these fast-paced times it’s inevitable. So much is changing. We’re all working to keep up. And, it’s incredible that that change affects us so personally and professionally. We often have to have difficult conversations.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:02:21]

We do. And, in fact, these very prevalent, difficult, conversations often happen in the midst of change, which if you’re working in a library, you know that the libraries are changing. Sometimes we make just small adjustments. Sometimes we want to do a much larger reorganization to meet new demands, new vision from the leadership of the organization in which we work. And all of that requires a lot of communication. And, I’m really hopeful that the book helps with some of that.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:02:53]

And effective communication, so that at the end of the conversation you don’t end up with hurt feelings.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:02:59]


Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:02:59]


Catherine Soehner:           [00:03:00]

Or more misunderstandings that you know…yeah, exactly.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:03:03]

Exactly. Well, let’s go through the book and talk about how this works. So, first of all, how do you know when you need to have a difficult conversation? How do you define that?

Catherine Soehner:           [00:03:14]

Right. And, we see in the book that really, a difficult conversation is in the eye of the beholder. So, what might be difficult for me, might be an easier conversation for somebody else. So, the way that I define a difficult conversation is any time that I have to deliver some kind of message that I think will be unwelcome to the other person. And so, because I would like everyone to be happy and I would like everyone to like me. And, those goals are not realistic. So, learning how to do this well is important. So, a difficult conversation for me comes up pretty often because, you know, having someone like me all the time is not going to happen. So…

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:03:59]


Catherine Soehner:           [00:03:59]

I think in terms of definition it really is up to the individual to think through. Why is this hard for me? And for me, it’s because I worry that it isn’t going to go over well.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:04:12]

Right, and you don’t want to make it more complicated than it already was. So, how do you get clear on this?

Catherine Soehner:           [00:04:18]

One of the first steps is that we get clear about who’s, you know, who’s supposed to be having this conversation. And, getting clear about what the conversation needs to be about. These top three steps, getting clear, gathering resources, and clarifying the message. These are all in preparation for having a difficult conversation. So, getting clear involves asking a lot of internal questions. Starting with, is this my conversation to have?

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:04:45]


Catherine Soehner:           [00:04:46]

Because, even though we might be in charge of something – a team, a project, or a library, it may not be our conversation to have. And, so we invite each person to really ask themselves, am I directly involved? Is there some policy or rule that insists that it’s my conversation to have? And, so by asking those kinds of questions, we get more clear. For example, if I have a direct report who’s coming to me saying you know, Anna is not doing the work that she said she would do. My first question back is, Have you talked to Anna about that?

Adriane Herrick Juarez :   [00:05:22]


Catherine Soehner:           [00:05:23]

That’s not my conversation to have. That’s between my direct report and Anna. Now if my direct report is saying, Oh, but I’m so nervous about having that conversation. Then we move into coaching. Let’s talk about how you could have that. What would you like to say? What would you like Anna to know? And then I coach them through that conversation, but it’s not mine to interfere. However, if there is something, for example, if it is a direct report who is not performing, that’s my conversation to have. So, how directly involved am I? Why do I need to have this conversation?

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:05:53]

Right. So, you’re getting clear on when and with whom you need to talk.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:05:58]


Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:05:58]

Outstanding, and then you’ve got a message that you need to get across at that point.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:06:03]

Correct. So, the next step being gathering the resources. Maybe there’s e-mails exchanged that would be important to bring to the meeting. Perhaps this is a five-year post-tenure review, and so you want to see what the previous review looked like. And, so bringing the facts to the table is important. And then, clarifying the message. So often, as humans, we want to make broad statements. Everything is wrong. Nothing is right. You are always late. These are difficult for someone to respond to because they’re so broad. Well, when was I late? Well I was on time yesterday; It’s too bad you didn’t see that.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:06:42]

So, you want to be as clear as possible. Last week you were late for your shift on Tuesday and Thursday. Those are facts. They’re not made up.Then there’s no judgment. I noticed. You follow up then with questions around, Do you know what happened? Or, Can you explain to me why you were late; I’d really be interested in knowing. But, getting clear on the message means really focusing on the facts. This is also very important when it’s a behavior. So, someone in meetings is consistently putting down another person’s idea. Oh, that’s just stupid. Oh, we can’t do that. We tried that last year. Often these folks don’t realize that they’re being, what we would call, negative. Calling it just negative behavior doesn’t help them, though.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:07:26]

What helps is being able to say, I noticed in the meeting last Wednesday that you mentioned, ‘that’s just stupid’ or you said, ‘we’ve already tried that. I wonder if you realize how often you say that. Those are behaviors that you can point out, and getting clear on that is helpful.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:07:44]

So, you’re clarifying your message.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:07:46]


Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:07:47]

And pointing to facts.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:07:48]

That’s exactly right. And we do encourage people to write down what they feel like they need to make sure the other person knows. This also helps get out some of the angst before you have the meeting. But also allows you to hold yourself accountable. I need to talk to Anna about being late, how she speaks to patrons, and now I have my three points so that I make sure I hit those three points in a way that is factual and asks for information.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :   [00:08:19]

That’s fantastic. Are you ready for the conversation yet?

Catherine Soehner:           [00:08:21]

By the time you do these preparatory steps, and there are more details in the book, please don’t use just my conversation here as the guidepost. But get into the book because there are excellent questions to help you be prepared for the conversation.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:08:36]

So, right, during the conversation the first thing is to invite the person in and let them know why you’re sitting down to meet. We’re meeting because I noticed you were late for your shift on Tuesday and Thursday. And then you immediately move into asking, I’m curious what that’s about because you’re usually on time, and this is a surprise to me. Can you talk to me about that? And then remaining silent.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:09:01]

It’s hard because I’m nervous. So, I want to keep talking but it’s really important to ask and to listen then. So, the next part then is listening, very carefully. What’s interesting about the listening is that sometimes you’ll get really valuable information. So, in the case of Anna who’s late for her shift last week maybe there was a death in the family. Maybe there were other stressors that upon knowing make so much more sense to me. OK, let’s regroup then.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:09:31]

Or, it could simply be that the timing of Anna’s shift is really early and she just has a hard time getting into work that early. Do we need her to take that shift? Then you start moving into problem-solving. But the steps for the conversation is to state the facts, then to listen, to ask questions, and to then engage the person – get more out of them. So, if they’ve said you know, Everything is wrong. My answer back is, Can you give me an example?

Catherine Soehner:           [00:10:03]

Or, if they are criticizing my performance, You know you could have communicated that so much better, someone might say to me. So, instead of taking that personally, what I find helpful is asking for examples. Or, asking them to tell me what they think good communication would look like. What would that have looked like if you had done it exactly right? And then consider.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:10:23]

And then finally, after you’ve engaged and you’ve gotten as much information as you can and then moving into, is there a way for us to both get something that we want out of it. If you’re late for your shift and it’s too early maybe, we can move your shift to 10:00 a.m. Maybe there’s somebody else who’s a morning person who could get there at 8:00. So, trying to find solutions that work for both parties can be really helpful. Sometimes there’s just not. Sometimes you just have to be on time. And that’s what we need, that’s why we hired you. And you know, is there anything that you can think to do to get you here on time? What would that look like? So, problem-solving until you’ve gotten to a place where you’ve both agreed on what’s going to happen next. And that’s when you wrap up the conversation.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:11:06]

Right. And as we were preparing for this interview, we were talking about the importance of being non-judgmental when you go into this interview or conversation.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:11:17]

Right. Yes. So, when you’re going into a conversation, I think what was most difficult for me to manage, at least initially, was when people criticize. When the conversation turned to criticizing my performance, whatever that was. Because you know, I’ve been in my life the A+ student, and the top performing employee, and I am very proud of that. So when someone says, You know, you could have done that better. That really hits me at a very vulnerable place and so it’s easy for me to say, Well, but I did communicate. I communicated here, and here, and here, and you know, what are you talking about?

Catherine Soehner:           [00:11:54]

It’s easy to get defensive.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:11:55]


Catherine Soehner:           [00:11:56]

And to immediately want to correct an incorrect statement. I do encourage folks to really, just take a breath and to get more information. The phrase, Tell me more is one that I picked up from Thanks for the Feedback. It’s a book by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, and it’s been so helpful to me to just simply, ask for more information. So, it sounds like I could have done better there. I need to think about that. But could you give me more information about what that would have looked like if I had done it better. Is such a helpful moment to take the sting out of any conversation and to de-escalate it. And, it also does give me time to think. Is this something that I do need to improve upon without being, you know, suddenly the worst leader in the entire world. That’s not the case. I have ways to improve.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :   [00:12:52]

Well, we all do. That’s normal. That’s why we do this broadcast so we can learn more to be better, and better all the time. Absolutely. So, you’ve had a conversation. You’ve been non-judgmental. You’ve come to, hopefully, some conclusions that work for everyone. What next?

Catherine Soehner:           [00:13:12]

So, then you’re not finished ‘till you write it up. And, it’s so important to devote some amount of time to writing up the conversation so that you continue to dispel any miscommunications before they become big blowups. There’s a formula in the book for these write-ups, and they’re generally very informal and just over e-mail, indicating the desire to reduce any miscommunication. And here’s what I think we talked about, here’s what I agreed to do. Here’s what you agreed to do. Please let me know if I got anything wrong by Tuesday of next week. And that’s it.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:13:50]

It’s pretty simple, but it allows the other person to correct any miscommunication. Oh, I didn’t agree to do that. OK, good, I would like you to do that, though. Are you now agreeing to do that? So, it does help in getting the communication in a form that is less ethereal and more concrete. It allows me to hold myself accountable. If I said, I’ll follow up and set another meeting for us. I put that in the meeting notes. Catherine will set the next meeting. So that it’s clear that it’s in my court to do. Anna has agreed to implement two different time management opportunities so that she can get here on time. We will re-evaluate at our next meeting. So, being clear about who’s agreed to what including what I’ve agreed to do is important because I want to demonstrate through good leadership that I’m to be held as accountable as anyone else. And so it allows both of us to have something to stand on, and refer back to, and continue to clarify.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:14:56]

That’s good communication. Definitely putting things in writing.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:14:59]


Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:15:00]

…and holding both parties accountable.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:15:02]


Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:15:02]

That’s great. And you mentioned a book that you’ve utilized that helped you a lot. Can I just touch on that a little bit?

Catherine Soehner:           [00:15:09]

Absolutely. I also want to give a quick shout out to Melanie Hawkes who often gives me these recommendations for books and this was one of them that she recommended. It’s called, Thanks for the Feedback, the art, and science of delivering and accepting feedback, and it’s by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Like I said, I do refer to it in the book. So, one of the most important things that they taught me in that book was the asking for more information. Could you tell me more about that? You’re saying everything is wrong. Can you tell me more? What’s wrong exactly, is so helpful. Because we do want to speak in generalities and in broad, sweeping statements. And I know what I mean when I say, Everything’s wrong. But, it’s very likely that the other person doesn’t. And, when they ask me, Can you be more specific? Or, Can you give me an example? It allows me to be more clear both with myself and with them. And, it just illuminates so much. And allows me as a leader, as a manager, to respond to the real issue.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:16:11]

Much like a reference interview, frankly. Because people often come with, I need everything about AIDS in Africa. That’s a really big topic, can we narrow that down? And, it’s the same thing in our conversations with others – is, I’m hearing you say that there’s big issues or things are falling through the cracks. Can you give me an example of what’s falling through the cracks recently, because I’d really like to help?

Adriane Herrick Juarez :   [00:16:35]

That’s great. And you’ll definitely want to read Ann and Catharine’s book, Effective Difficult Conversations before you go in, and have your steps lined out, and be ready to go. The book is not long. I will say it’s absolutely a fabulous read. Easy to get through. And after we have this conversation, I hope people will refer to it.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:16:54]

Yeah, I hope so, too.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:16:55]

Yeah, definitely. So we have a question from a listener.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:16:59]

Oh, wonderful.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:17:00]

It’s about team dynamics. And, her question is- in a team of leaders, how do we balance team cooperation and sharing our personal truths? So, for example, those who naturally compete in a team setting versus those who may accommodate in a team setting. How do the two end up working together in harmony?

Catherine Soehner:           [00:17:23]

That’s actually that’s a really good question. I try to make an effort when I’m in a group of folks who are both very vocal and other folks who want to hold back a little, to make sure that I’m calling on those folks who haven’t spoken yet. So, you know I haven’t heard anything yet from Mike over there. Mike, do you want to contribute something to the conversation, what are your thoughts? So, that people who are less vocal get a chance to weigh-in.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:17:47]

I also do a lot of time management in groups, seeing the agenda, setting an agenda, of course, is a good idea, to begin with. But then, seeing the number of things that we want to get through and the amount of time that we have, and judging, OK, we’ve now spent 15 minutes going back and forth on this issue. It’s probably time for us to wrap-up. And so, many folks who work with me will recognize my phrase, I’m noticing the time. And that gives a nice cue to everyone- what time it is, how much time we’ve been spending, and that we might want to begin to wrap-up.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:18:20]

And what I’ll likely do is then, repeat back. So, what I’m hearing so far is this idea, that idea, and this other competing idea. Are there ways in which we might… I’m seeing some similarities across here, why don’t we pull those out. And then, you know, we move forward. But, it is important to really encourage those who are more quiet in a meeting to elicit their ideas so as to counterbalance and bring the diversity to problem-solving.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:18:50]

That sounds like a great leadership model. Something we can all follow in working with groups. And, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Catherine Soehner:           [00:18:58]

Well, I think one thing that Ann and I, my co-author, we talk a lot about, is that what brought us to this moment of even being anyway informed about how to have an effective conversation is because we were both so bad at it. We just did not have the skill, at all. And both of us, very separately, in our different institutions began to work on how, how do I have this kind of conversation and in an effective way. And when we met here at the University of Utah back in 2011, 2012, and we had lunch, and we both were talking about this, and I said, Ann you have a very similar process, I have similar – let’s put them together and see if there’s something we can learn from both of the ways that we’ve approached this.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:19:45]

But honestly, it was because we were both so terrible at it. I would avoid them at all cost, often made assumptions about people’s behavior rather than asking. Those got me into really bad places; because nobody knows why they’re behaving the way they are behaving except the person who’s doing the behavior. And, you have to ask.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:20:06]

So, I do want to encourage people that even if your first attempts are a little rusty or you feel that you didn’t do them as well as you would have liked, to keep trying, to keep doing it, to keep learning. Because, it is the most important aspect of leadership, for me, in being successful at all – is learning how to be both direct, and clear, but compassionate, and understanding, and finding ways to work with folks.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:20:35]

So, I can’t encourage you enough to be brave and to know that, as leaders, there’s an expectation that we will have these conversations, and have them successfully. And, I feel the more I’m able to do that well, the more integrity I bring to my position as a leader.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:20:54]

It takes practice.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:20:55]

It does.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:20:56]

And, we can all get there.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:20:58]

Yes, absolutely everyone…if I can do it, and I’m the most terrified of these kinds of conversations, I must say, and I did them poorly, and have learned to do them well. I’ve turned this weakness into a strength of mine because I’ve worked so hard at it.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:21:13]

That’s fantastic. And we’re grateful that you compiled this amazing book, and resources, and steps for all of us to learn from your experience. So, thank you for that.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:21:21]

Thank you.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:21:22]

In closing, what does being a leader in libraries mean to you personally?

Catherine Soehner:           [00:21:27]

You know, I was saying before we got started, that this is a question that I ask myself regularly, Why do I do this job? What do I get out of it? Why is it important? I think some of what I enjoy in being a leader is being able to say, yes to really interesting, new ideas, or new ways of doing things, and that’s just fine. But, I also recognize that being a leader, for me, means that I’m also having a huge impact on individuals. I take that very seriously.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:21:58]

What I say, what I do, has an impact. To take that in a serious manner means that I want to improve my work. How can I continually be better at this job, which then allows me to hear feedback that might have made me defensive 10 years ago? Now I feel much more open to. Even if I don’t take every piece of feedback that comes to me. Sometimes it is wrong. But, being open to learning, for me, is the key to continual improvement, and is so important knowing that I do have this really personal impact on other people.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:22:34]

So, for me it is both fun, I mean, there’s a fun part to it, and it’s a lot of internal work. How can I continue to improve?

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:22:43]

That’s a question we all ask ourselves every day. Library leadership is here to help people do just that. Catherine, it’s been fantastic having you on the show. We’re so grateful for your book, and I encourage everyone to open the pages and dive in. We will all have difficult conversations at some point in our career. Thanks for being on the show, Catherine.

Catherine Soehner:           [00:23:02]

Thanks for having me, Adriane. This has been great.

Adriane Herrick Juarez :  [00:23:05]

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adrian Herrick Juarez. For more episodes, tune in to, where you can now subscribe to have monthly updates delivered right into your e-mail inbox. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. And, thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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