Facilitating Difficult Dialogues

Introduction

Difficult dialogues (also known as difficult discussions or difficult conversations and as “hot moments” or “hot topics”) refer to classroom events that are often sudden and volatile and characterized by conflict and discord. They may be expected or unexpected and involve “hot button” topics that arouse intense feelings and strong opinions.

Difficult dialogues can involve a variety of topics. According to the Harvard University Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, some difficult topics are related to course content (e.g., a lack of diverse perspectives in the literature or a presentation from a particular perspective). Others are related to current events that intersect with course content and/or the lives of the people present in your classroom (e.g., hostile immigration policies, race-based violence, or pervasive sexual harassment.) Difficult topics can also be related to the realities of a discipline (e.g., unbalanced gender and ethnic representation, unethical research practices, a history of systematically excluding certain voices). ► Inclusive Moves

No instructor, no matter how experienced, can always predict which issues will be “hot buttons” for students. These conversations can flare up and become heated very quickly and sometimes be in danger of careening out of control. In these situations, the instructor faces the difficult task of managing the class process effectively. Warren (2006) has argued that “it is the teacher’s responsibility both to help students learn something from the moment and to care for and protect all the participants, perhaps particularly the student(s) who has generated the hot moment.” ► Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom

Preparing

Making these moments productive rather than destructive takes planning and active intervention. Handling difficult dialogues successfully can be accomplished in three phases. The first phase involves anticipating which topics may create controversy and determining how they fit into the learning objectives of the course. Although it is not possible to know all of the potential triggers for contentiousness in a class, it is possible to anticipate some of them.

  • Try to identify which of the topics you plan to cover in the course may become controversial, keeping in mind that it is difficult to predict how students will react to a particular topic.
  • Think about how controversies, expected or not, may contribute, not just detract, from the learning objectives of the course (e.g., encouraging students to think critically, to consider diverse perspectives, or to converse respectfully about differences).
  • Spell out these learning objections in the syllabus so students know that controversial topics are not necessarily something to be afraid of but can provide a forum for learning and growth.
  • To introduce a topic that you expect will lead to controversy, place it within the context of the course; tell students why you are having the conversation and how it fits in the course content, goals, and learning objectives.
  • If relevant, provide pre-discussion assignments that will allow students to clarify and articulate their own views as well as those they oppose. You might also provide readings of models your discipline uses to think about these issues or ask students to be prepared to argue for the position they oppose.
  • Do some thinking ahead of time about what issues may hit a nerve with you personally and how you might deal with those feelings. Do not avoid difficult topics simply because you feel uncomfortable dealing with them; at the same time, do not introduce controversy into a class for its own sake.

The second phase, also part of planning, involves laying a foundation for productive discussions. The best way to begin is by building a sense of community: getting to know the students in the class and encouraging students to get to know each other. Additionally, early in the semester acknowledge that these kinds of moments may occur and give students guidance in advance on how to handle them. For example, with or without the participation of students, develop ground rules for class conversations, rules that might include

  • Always use a respectful tone.
  • Do not interrupt or raise your voice.
  • Avoid name-calling , accusations, and sarcasm.
  • Focus comments on arguments, not on the people making the arguments.
  • Do not make broad character attacks.
  • Listen carefully to what is being said.
  • Ask questions when you do not understand; do not assume you know what others are thinking.
  • Try to see the issue from the other person’s perspective.
  • Connect points to course content when possible.
  • Do not expect any individual to speak on behalf of an entire group.
  • Maintain confidentiality (what is said in the classroom stays in the classroom).
  • Feel free to exit the class if things become too uncomfortable.

Facilitating and Following Up

The third phase of handling difficult dialogues is facilitating the discussions as they are happening. Some strategies for managing the situation include

  • If a topic is likely to provoke controversy, provide a framework by stating the goals for the discussion and introducing structured discussion activities (e.g., formal debates).
  • If tensions arise, acknowledge them in the moment.
  • If needed, take a moment to compose yourself. Be sure to manage your own response to flare-ups. Consider admitting your own discomfort to the class.
  • Pay close attention to the class dynamics and actively manage the discussion rather than letting it spiral out of control.
  • Remind students of the established ground rules. Confront inappropriate language or behavior.
  • Consider having everyone take a break and write out what they’re feeling or thinking about the conversation.  This can allow emotions to cool enough for the discussion to be respectful and constructive.
  • Ask students to employ active listening techniques: listen carefully to other points of view, ask questions about them, and restate them before offering an opinion.
  • Create the opportunity for  multiple perspectives to be heard by inviting participation from all students in the class.
  • Listen to what students are trying to express, which may be something other than what their words reflect, and try to clarify their perspectives.
  • Try to depersonalize positions on which students disagree – separating opinions from the people who hold them.
  • Help students separate effect from intention. That is, focus the conversation on the impact of a statement, not the potential motives of the person who has said it.
  • Similarly, help students separate a statement from the emotions it raises, so the students can discuss the ideas, underlying assumptions, factual errors, and logic of the arguments.
  • At the end of the discussion, synthesize the discussion and relate it to the course content, including the concepts, theories, and research the students have been studying in the course, as well as to the goals and learning objections.
  • Additionally, after the discussion has ended, consider asking students to reflect on what they have learned from the interchange, regarding the topic, the dynamics of the discussion, and their own participation.
  • If the topic is too hard to manage in the moment, suggest postponing until the next session, giving everyone time to gather themselves. Just remember to come back to the topic; avoiding these difficult moments altogether can have negative consequences for the students, the instructor, and the overall class climate.
  • ​​​​​​​If necessary, talk with students outside of class about what happened.  This may be especially important for the students who were most embroiled in the hot moment.

Sources:

Additional Resources:

Interactive Webinars

Sponsored by the Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion, Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden has presented the following interactive webinars:​​​​​​​

Culturally Responsive Mentoring

 

Diversity Flashpoints in the Classroom

 

Implicit Bias: What It Is and How to Interrupt It ​​​​​​​