Facilitating Challenging Conversations
In the context of political acrimony you may encounter heated moments during a class session. You can do a lot to prepare for the possibility of such moments arising, and even help students “go there.” Broadly speaking, there are two ways to prepare. First, before the course begins, you can begin to design a culture of openness and trust, focused on relationship building, authenticity, and recognition of your own identity and biases. Second, you can prepare intervention strategies for times when those moments spontaneously erupt in your classes. Please keep in mind that they may erupt in both synchronous and asynchronous classes, and they may erupt in channels that students use outside of class. Establishing a culture of openness and trust can help you stay informed of such events.
Navigating challenging conversations is easier when you’ve built a culture of openness and trust. There are things you can do to set the tone from the beginning of the course. Keep in mind the differences between academic debate and dialogue. Practice authenticity and allow students to see you as a fellow inquirer even as you take the role of “multipartial facilitator” (Essential Partners, 2020). Reflect early and often upon how your own identities show up in the classroom, and how they intersect with your identity as an instructor. Consider introducing the basics of active listening skills to your students, and giving them time to practice them on low-stakes topics. You may also wish to co-create ground rules with your student, while explaining the purpose of those guidelines as support for a space of open, brave inquiry that minimizes harm to others. If you have created ground rules, or guidelines, for the classroom, you can refer back to them when necessary and remind students of their agreement to those rules at the start of the course.
Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu recommends eight practices to help connect students across diversity:
- Foster mindfulness
- Honor vulnerability
- Model authenticity
- Practice listening
- Balance acceptance and change
- Cultivate compassion
- Focus on gratitude and appreciation
- Take responsibility
Because debate has a long tradition in U.S. academic culture, it tends to be an unquestioned practice in college classrooms. This chart compares debate to dialogue, and may be useful as you plan your classroom discussions. Here are some valuable resources for helping students develop the active listening skills that help build classroom community, and trust. Honoring student experience and sharing your own experiences authentically are fruitful ways to create an anti-bias culture in a course.
Harmful comments may or may not result in heated discourse; either way, you can and should plan to intervene. Familiarize yourself with forms of micro aggressions, particularly if you have limited experience with them. Do not let harmful remarks pass!
Not all heated discussions involve harmful comments, but they often do. A basic question you can ask yourself when a discussion becomes heated is: is now the right time to address this? If it is, then your next step is to slow down the conversation by creating a pause for reflection. Allow students some amount of time – perhaps 5 minutes – to reflect on their feelings before returning to the discussion. This can be freeform writing or using a template such as the seed discussion organizer. You might even lead students in simple mindfulness activity such as “next three breaths” breathing or other grounding activity. Try to resist the urge to avoid a topic related to current events if it comes up unexpectedly in a way that seems to demand a response from you. If you cannot address it in the present moment, reassure your students that you will address it in follow up communication or in the next class.
Originally coined by Harvard sociologist Chester Pierce in the 1970s, the term “microaggression” became widely used after Derald Wing Sue advanced and updated its framework. Sue defines the term as “the everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people" (2010) and categorizes 10 major types of microaggressions:
- Alien in One’s Own Land
- Ascription of Intelligence
- Color Blindness
- Criminality/Assumption of Criminal Status
- Denial of Individual Racism/Sexism/Heterosexism
- Myth of Meritocracy
- Pathologizing Cultural Values/Communication Styles
- Second-Class Citizen
- Sexist/Heterosexist Language
- Traditional Gender Role Prejudicing and Stereotyping
This table describes microaggressions, with examples and implications.
Preparing for Challenging Conversations
Before the course begins, and before each class, take some time to visualize how the discussion part will go. Intentional planning includes thinking about the purpose of the discussion, any roadblocks, intent versus impact, and how you will scaffold the discussion, especially how you will build in time for students to gather their thoughts. Effective and simple techniques like Think-Pair-Share and 60-second essays can reduce anxiety and support students reflecting on their intent and the possible impact of their words. Some mindfulness practices are introduced, below, and these can be very beneficial—even something as simple as pausing to breathe, a two-minute ambient sound meditation, or allowing students to walk about.
Part of your preparation might include designing worksheets (for example, in Google Docs), timelines, sentence stems, or other kinds of templates to guide discussions. Worksheets can be complex or very simple, as in this Seed Discussion Organizer. There are special considerations when teaching remotely.
Whether or not the discussion explicitly takes up the topic of race, but especially if it does, this self-assessment from Teaching Tolerance will help you prepare by reflecting on your strengths and needs.
Facilitation of Hot Moments
When conversations get heated it is often a sign that a microaggression has occurred, and it may help to pause and unpack what happened with students. But not all heated moments are negative or to be dreaded. They may be a sign of, or at least provide an opportunity for, learning and engagement. Clashing perspectives provide opportunities to surface the values and commitments that students seldom have an opportunity to reflect on or question. Theatre Delta, a group that uses theatre pedagogy and facilitated discussions to examine bias and promote dialogue, created this handy one-page summary for making a quick decision when conversations get heated. Here are some additional resources:
Navigating difficult moments (Bok Center at Harvard U)
A list of tips and strategies
Navigating Difficult Conversations in the Classroom (Kent U)
This planning tool from Learning for Justice is organized by the kinds of emotions you may encounter in the classroom from time to time, and offers some strategies.
Avoidance by the instructor can have a detrimental effect on students. This is certainly true when what has been said disparages minoritized identities or ignores systemic racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Even though students are resilient, the effect on classroom dynamics, trust, and learning, are significant. In this section you will find resources for understanding common experiences of students who are BIPOC, including racial battle fatigue and microaggressions.
The term racial battle fatigue was coined by William Smith to describe the psychological stress response, particularly among Black men in the United States, to repeated experiences of overpolicing, microaggression, surveillance, and other forms of delegitimation. Students at UConn report regular experiences of microaggressions and microinvalidations, including in the classroom.
If you are an instructor of color, increased demands for emotional labor, and service to the University on questions of diversity, equity, and inclusion, can lead to fatigue. BIPOC instructors at the University report that students frequently question their authority—another contributor to feeling drained. Bias in student evaluations of teaching are well-documented in pedagogy literature.
These experiences of students of color and instructors of color constitute expenditures of energy and added cognitive load. Recognizing this is an important part of facilitating discussions, overall equity goals, and self-care.
Intent Versus Impact (microaggressions):
Trauma-informed Pedagogy and Healing-centered Pedagogy
Emotions and social factors are not extraneous to learning. Even in courses that do not center discussion, a student’s interactions shape the circumstances for learning in a course. Contemporary bureaucratic structures at complex institutions such as universities often miss the human element, yet these are structures that students navigate on a regular basis in addition to their academic studies. The whole of the experience students have will impact their well-being and their ability to learn and progress through a degree over time. Racism, homophobia, and ableist exclusion occasionally result in overt incidents on campus, but are insidiously present in ordinary ways, too.
Trauma-informed pedagogy does not claim diagnostic power; rather, it is a shorthand way to recognize the impact of even vicarious traumatic events on the learning mind and body. In “The Body Keeps the Score,” researcher Bessel van der Kolk (2014) writes,
“Despite the well-documented effects of anger, fear, and anxiety on the ability to reason, many programs continue to ignore the need to engage the safety system of the brain before trying to promote new ways of thinking.” Consider whether your teaching practices can employ the concepts of heartfulness and soul-centered teaching, or adapt mindfulness and creativity to mitigate stress. New frameworks known as healing centered perspectives suggest ways to make space for creative expression and joy. An overarching practice is to encourage community building. Healing-centered approaches may also involve finding ways to teach resistance history. Interrogating whiteness, homophobia, and ableism, as ideologies, can be liberating and support healing for all—provided it is properly scaffolded. Self-reflection may be a precondition for such work, of course, and there are many resources available on the internet, in books, and among colleagues engaged in antiracist work and allyship.
As necessary and useful as trauma-informed teaching practices are, trauma should not be the only lens through which students are viewed, especially if it takes on tinges of a deficit model. Getting to know students as individuals is important, to avoid making incorrect and harmful attributions and assumptions.
Social and Emotional Learning
With some preparation, especially in the area of social and emotional learning (SEL), instructors can gain confidence that the challenging conversations they facilitate won’t become the proverbial “road to nowhere.” This planning tool from Learning for Justice is organized by the kinds of emotions you may encounter in the classroom from time to time, and offers some strategies. When thinking about trauma-informed pedagogy and social and emotional learning (SEL), avoid one-dimensional application, which can often perpetuate inequity and harm. SEL models have unfortunately been misused for purposes of control (Kaler-Jones) of students of color.
In the case of conversations about race, ASCD has a toolkit to help you know what to expect and how to facilitate. See also trauma-informed pedagogy on the CETL web site.
There are many formal models for dialogue in the classroom. Some of these are described in the Initiative on Campus Dialogues at UConn. A shortcut way to think about success in dialogues is to think about agreements, structure, and intentions (Essential Partners, LLC).
- Agreements may include things like class ground rules that you can refer back to
- Structure may include things like time limits on speakers, regular use of breakout sessions, and norms for calling on students or discussion participation
- Intentions refer to your own purposes for a dialogue or class session, and the clear articulation of that purpose to students; it may also include goals you co-create with students for a unit, a class meeting, or a specific discussion.
Even if you have limited experience with dialogue, the three basics—agreements, structure, and intentions—can help you navigate hot moments as well as helping you design ahead of time.