Facilitating “Difficult” Conversations

Sharon Raz

As instructors, we sometimes expected to have class discussions about “hot topics” or to facilitate challenging conversations. Part of the challenge lies in the fact that we never fully know which issues will be “hot buttons” for our students. Conversations can become heated very quickly, and before long, it can feel like the class is careening out of control. Below are some ideas and guidelines that can help you facilitate classroom discussion that might be “difficult” or “uncomfortable.”

Laying the foundation for productive discussions

Early in the quarter, focus on establishing an inclusive class atmosphere that promotes respect, trust, and listening. Here are some suggestions for promoting an inclusive class culture:

  • Invite students to get to know each other (and try to get to know your students) by name and interest. This helps build a sense of community, and may help you, as an instructor, anticipate and prepare for issues that may be hot buttons for your students. It may also turn otherwise conflicted situations into more collaborative discussions across difference.
  • Have the class establish and agree on ground rules for discussion. Clarifying expectations about class discussions early on can prevent contentious situations later.  You can use the guidelines/agreements that we use in this training. Some additional guidelines can be:
    • Listen respectfully, without interrupting.
    • Listen actively and with an ear to understanding others’ views. (Don’t just think about what you are going to say while someone else is talking.)
    • Criticize ideas, not individuals.
    • Commit to learning, not debating. Comment to share information, not to persuade.
    • Avoid blame, speculation, and inflammatory language.
    • Allow everyone the chance to speak.
    • Avoid assumptions about any member of the class or generalizations about social groups. Do not ask individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group.

It is important that students agree on the ground rules before discussion begins. See below on this page for some further examples and considerations around the use of guidelines.

  • Remind the students of the class guidelines and enforce them in class.
  • You might need to prepare yourself as well. What are your hot buttons? What is likely to make you uneasy or upset? What will you do when your buttons get pushed?

Spontaneous Discussions: Dealing with the Unexpected

Sometimes students raise controversial issues in class unexpectedly. It is best if you can respond immediately, if only to decide what to do next:

  1. Acknowledge the student who raised the issue while noting that students may vary in their responses.
  2. Decide whether you are ready and willing to engage with the topic right away.
  3. Quickly assess whether the class would like to spend time sharing views about the topic.
  4. If students want to have a dialogue, and you don’t feel ready for it, schedule a discussion for a later class and suggest ways that students could prepare.

Remember that a difficult conversation around a disagreement can be a crucially productive moment and sweeping such moments aside when they flare up can lead to problems, including students feeling unheard, alienated, and hurt—but you do have to work to make sure these moments are productive.

If you decide to engage in a spontaneous discussion, keep these things in mind:

  • Remind students of the ground rules you have set up. (This is one of the reasons you lay them out in advance—so that you can invoke them when necessary.)
  • Be sure to manage your own response to flare-ups. If you need a moment to compose yourself, take one.
  • Using the board can remind students that this is about ideas, not about judging the people in the room. If someone says something inflammatory, perhaps detach the idea from the student by turning it into a statement on the board that can be analyzed.
  • If the topic is too big and hot, too hard to manage in the moment, you can always suggest postponing until the next session, giving everyone time to gather themselves. You can even suggest relevant homework (e.g., “Each person should come in with one scholarly source on the subject”). Just remember to come back to the topic; as mentioned above, avoiding these difficult moments altogether can have consequences.

Planned Discussions

In situations where you know you will be addressing a controversial topic, you can prepare for the discussion in ways that set the stage for success. Here are some things you can consider:

  • Consider possible sources of student views. On many issues, students’ viewpoints may be wrapped up in their personal identities, influenced by family members, or connected to religious/spiritual/moral beliefs. Just being aware of these deeper origins of student opinions—both for you and their classmates—may be useful in approaching delicate conversations.
  • Lead with your goals. Contextualize the discussion within your class and disciplinary contexts. Be clear with your students why you are having this conversation and what learning outcomes you expect. Be ready to reiterate these goals during the discussion and ask the students to redirect the conversation in ways that return to these goals.
  • Provide pre-discussion assignments. Ask students to complete an assignment in advance that helps them understand and articulate their own views, as well as others they have heard. Such pre-discussion homework can help them reflect on those views, understand potential reasons behind them, and connect them to disciplinary content in the course. Such activities let them do some more logical thinking in advance before any emotional barriers get thrown up during a heated discussion.
  • Prepare students with disciplinary models for thinking. If you are wanting them to learn how someone in your discipline discusses these matters, be certain to spend time overtly explaining and modeling those disciplinary processes, and make sure the discussion practices those models, prompting students as needed.

During Class

Provide a framework and starting point. Prepare some questions to get the conversation started, balancing the needs for both focus and openness in responses. Avoid questions that seem like there is one right answer. In some cases, it works well to ask not for their own opinions, per se, but a sharing of what opinions they have heard about that topic; such an approach allows you to get the “lay of the land” without anyone feeling too exposed from the start. Structured discussion activities can also be useful for guiding conversations in productive and supportive ways.

Actively manage the discussion. Be ready to prompt students as needed for follow-up, additional explanation, or evidence. Be ready to remind students of the discussion guidelines and let them practice re-stating comments as needed. And be ready to steer the conversation back to the stated goals of the discussion.

Address the difficulty. If there is some hesitancy in the conversation, consider asking why it is difficult to discuss, and be ready to reassert any course or disciplinary framework that will help people respond. Admitting your own discomfort in addressing such issues can make students more comfortable with their own discomfort, especially if you explain or model how you can work past it.

Provide structured opportunities for reflection and input. Consider how you can structure opportunities for everyone to stop, think, and reflect, particularly when the conversation lags or becomes contentious. Ask students to write for a few moments, share answers with a neighbor, and come back to the broader discussion with that new focus. Sometimes a short writing break is useful in diffusing tension and refocusing the conversation.

Be ready to defer the conversation. If the conversation gets too heated or off-topic, you may want to reach some sort of closure to the immediate discussion and defer the conversation to another class period, for which everyone can prepare. Be certain to explain the purpose of this deferral and give students some resource or assignment that will help them prepare to discuss the topic in a more meaningful way within the context of the course and discipline. This is particularly useful in situations where the conversation was spontaneous, not planned.

Be aware of the implications of sharing your own views. Weigh the impact of you sharing your own opinions on an issue, knowing that could silence students who hold other views. If you do share your own ideas, be sure to elaborate on your thinking process enough to model the disciplinary thinking you want them to do, not necessarily the outcome.

Confront inappropriate language. If a student makes an inappropriate comment—racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive—letting it go without intervention can seem like a tacit endorsement of those views. And whether the slight is intentional or not, the impact is the same. Letting such comments pass unchallenged can seriously harm students’ trust in you and their sense of belonging in the class and the university. Have some responses ready for how you are going to address such comments, including language that interrupts bias by calling out the behavior while calling in the person. Responding directly to microaggressions and other inappropriate language may feel uncomfortable, but our discomfort as instructors has less impact than discomfort experienced by marginalized students.

Include everyone. To include all students’ perspectives can be challenging in a whole group discussion, especially if students are dealing with unfamiliar or controversial material.   Moving beyond a whole group discussion format allows all students to participate and helps prevent the most talkative or opinionated students from dominating the conversation.  Using small groups, your class can hear from students who may not speak otherwise, including those who may see their views as marginalized as well as those who want to explore ideas they are not sure about. Some methods for increasing the number of discussants include:

  • The Round: Give each student an opportunity to respond to a guiding question without interruption or comments. Provide students with the option to pass. After the round, discuss the responses.
  • Think-Pair-Share: Give students a few minutes to respond to a question individually in writing. Divide the class into pairs. Instruct the students to share their responses with group members. Provide students with explicit directions. After a specified time period, have the class reconvene in order to debrief.  You can ask for comments on how much their pairs of views coincided or differed, or ask what questions remain after their paired discussion.

Paraphrase. Paraphrase what a person has said in order to clarify the point, and move the conversation to a deeper level. When paraphrasing, always do so in a way that makes it easy for the speaker to correct you (“So what I’m hearing is that … Is that right?”). Using paraphrasing can help us to link the discussion back to previous topics or bridge it to the next topic.  Paraphrasing can be a great tool for navigating “difficult” discussions. To learn more about the power of paraphrasing and how you can use it as a facilitator, please read: The Power of the Paraphrase.

Follow-up Questions. Ask a “probing” or “follow up” question to the same speaker to get clarification or dig deeper. For example: “Why is that important to you?”; “Can you say more about that?”

Reaction questions. Ask a “reaction” question that seeks to have other people respond to the last speaker’s comments in some way. For example: “Does anyone else have a different view?” This can be a good way to politely move between speakers.

Let there be silence. Often, moderators feel pressure to keep the conversation flowing, so they are troubled by silence and seek to fill it with probing questions or a change of topic. However, sometimes the right thing to do is to sit with the silence and give people a little space to find their way to what they want to say. For example: You can count in your head to 10 before continuing to the next topic.

Questions for Constructing a Conversation (From Conversation Café)
1. Stay curious: “Tell me more about…”
2. Make sure you have heard what was said: “This is what I heard you say… is it what you meant?”
3. Someone is pushing a particular point of view: “What led you to this point of view?”
4. If someone begins lecturing and intellectualizing: “I notice your passion about this issue: What makes this so important for you?”
5. If you suspect you do not understand: “Can you say that in another way?”
6. If you hold a different opinion: “I’d like to offer another point of view…”
7. If someone has been silent: “I’m wondering if you have some thoughts or feelings about what you’ve been hearing?”
8. If someone’s ideas are very abstract: “If what you are proposing came to pass, how would things be different?”

Follow-Up

Synthesize the discussion. Leave some time at the end of class for people to synthesize what they heard, particularly in terms of how it relates back to course concepts and the activity’s stated goals. Or consider giving students a follow-up assignment outside of class that asks them to do this synthesis and reflection, both for their own benefit and for you to assess how useful the activity was. Part of the purpose here can be to give students a way to process any cognitive (or emotional) dissonance they may have encountered during the discussion.

Reflect on the conversation dynamics. Ask student what they would have liked to have done differently in the conversation—either a reflection on the whole group’s behavior or (perhaps more importantly) on how they participated. You might remind them of any frameworks or guidelines as a structure for their reflections. In some cases, it might be worth giving the group a second chance at a discussion.

Share relevant resources as needed. If you think some students may need assistance processing a difficult discussion, and who may need emotional or psychological support, make sure they know about campus resources available to them, including:

Gather student feedback. To obtain student feedback about the quality of the discussion and to identify issues that may need follow-up, you can save the last five minutes of class for students to write a Minute Paper. Ask them to respond to some or all of these questions:

  • What are the three most important points you learned today?
  • What important questions remain unanswered for you?
  • What did you learn specifically from what someone else said that you would not have thought of on your own?

Review the student responses before your next meeting with the class. During the next class, briefly summarize the student feedback and thank the students for their participation.

For more information and suggestions, please visit Start Talking: A handbook for engaging difficult dialogues in higher education.

A resource that you can share with your students is TedTalk video: I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left. In this talk, Megan Phelps-Roper shares details of life inside America’s most controversial church and describes how conversations on Twitter were key to her decision to leave it. She shares her personal experience of extreme polarization, along with some sharp ways we can learn to successfully engage across ideological lines.

* This guide was prepared by Sharon Raz, and is based on “Managing difficult classroom discussions”, the Center of Innovative Teaching and Learning at the Indiana University Bloomington.

Conflict Management in Class

Conflict Management for Instructors

Have you ever had to deal with a disruptive or highly emotional student? Have you had a student question your marking or challenge your authority in the classroom? These situations are examples of conflicts, or situations in which at least one person perceives that their interests are in opposition to others’ interests. By adopting an open and proactive approach to conflicts, you can reduce the frequency with which conflicts arise and their impact. Here are some strategies to help you both prevent and manage conflicts in your teaching.

Preventing Conflicts

  • Be credible. Credibility is built from the first day of class and is continually judged throughout the term. On the first day, establish your credibility by providing some background information about your experience with the subject matter, your experience as a student, your research, etc. Show that you are focused and prepared. Keep this up throughout the term by coming to lectures prepared and sharing your lecture goals with your students. Organization, enthusiasm, solid knowledge of the content, and fairness all help to build and maintain credibility. Finally, you do not need to be perfect to be credible. If you make a mistake or don’t know the answer to a question, acknowledge the situation and focus on ensuring that the students get access to the required information as soon as possible. Defensive reactions tend to build conflict instead of preventing it.
  • Set clear expectations. Provide expectations from the start, both by writing them in your course outline and stating them in class. You can describe the goals of the course and outline roles for you and your students. You can also clearly emphasize your expectations for student behavior and the consequences for prohibited behavior, stressing mutual respect as a rationale for any ground rules. You can also include University policies towards certain behaviors (e.g., plagiarism) in your course outline.
  • Develop rapport. Students work better when they feel that their instructors care about them; therefore, try to reduce anonymity and use students’ names whenever possible (e.g., in lectures and when grading assignments or papers). Be present a few minutes before and after class to answer questions and chat with the students informally.
  • Use a dynamic teaching style. Good presentation and facilitation skills as well as enthusiasm for your teaching are assets that will keep students’ attention focused and help prevent distracting classroom behavior such as lateness, talking, sleeping, etc. Using interactive teaching methods also helps to prevent distracting behaviors by involving students in the lecture.

Responding to Conflict Situations

Not all conflicts can be avoided with proactive measures. The following six steps describe a flexible response to many conflict situations. To practice implementing these steps, remember a conflict you have experienced and think about how these steps could be adapted to help you respond to that situation.

  1. Don’t take it personally

    Conflict situations can make the participants feel upset, threatened, frustrated, and/or angry. These emotional reactions are unpleasant and they can interfere with your ability to respond constructively. Help to control your emotional responses to challenging situations by changing your perceptions of them. Rather than angrily thinking, “That student is a jerk” or feeling miserable because “I’m being attacked”, you could think to yourself, “That student is really upset – I wonder what the problem is?”, or “This is a distraction that needs to be addressed.” By not taking the situation personally, you control your own emotional reaction, which allows you to respond in a calm manner.

  2. Choose when and where to deal with the situation

    Responding immediately to student concerns, distress and inappropriate behavior demonstrates that you are attentive to your students’ needs and reinforces your expectations for student behavior. For example, if students are noisy in class you can respond immediately by pausing until you regain the students’ attention, making eye contact with the disruptive students, or asking if there is a problem you can help resolve. Some situations can not be fully addressed immediately. For example, addressing a serious disagreement in class can distract the students, undermine your authority and take time away from the planned learning activities. The best response can be to note that there is a situation that needs to be resolved and suggest when and where it might be further investigated. Try to be attentive to both your needs and the student’s situation when picking the time and place. If you sense that a student is intimidated by authority, you may want to meet in a neutral location, like a conference room, rather than in your office. By meeting at an appropriate time and place, you can facilitate open communication between yourself and the students.

  3. Listen to the student

    When you meet with students, indicate that you are interested in hearing their perspectives by keeping a positive tone, and asking them open-ended questions, like “What part of the marking do you see as unfair?” When the students explain their situation, really listen: focus on their communication, don’t interrupt, and let them finish.

  4. Check your perception

    It’s very easy to misinterpret someone, especially if they are at all emotional. To ensure that you understand your students, you can check your perception of their accounts by describing your understanding and asking them to correct any misinterpretations or elaborate on anything that you find unclear. When describing your understanding, reframe their points as positive comments using non-blaming words. For example, “If my group members think they can do this to me again, they’re mistaken!” can be rephrased as “It’s important to you that your rights are respected.” Rephrasing the problem reassures the students that you are listening to them and it ensures that all the parties understand the problem. You can also ask lots of open-ended questions until you have enough information to understand the problem. Ideally, the feedback process would end when the students’ comments and body language confirm that they are sure that you have completely understood their message.

  5. Select and explain your position

    Now that you understand the students, you are in a good position to select a course of action. Be sure to choose an action that is in line with your teaching goals for the course. Tell the students what you have decided and give them your rationale for your decision. For example, when responding to a mark dispute, you might choose to review the assignment with the student by making reference to the marking criteria. In explaining your position, you might want to show an example of an assignment that better meets your expectations.

  6. Discuss next steps and document your decision

    When you have explained what you have decided to do, you can discuss possible next steps with the students:

    Finally, in many cases, you will want to document your decisions and, where appropriate, the information upon which you have based your decision.

    • If your plan of action requires follow-up on your part, you may want to briefly explain the process. For example, if you agree to review an assignment, you might want to indicate when they can expect to receive your comments.
    • You may want to direct students to other resources on campus, including counseling or health services, to get support and/or documentation.
    • If the students are not satisfied with your decision, it is good practice to direct them to an appropriate avenue for appeal (e.g., department chair).

Responding to highly emotional students

  • Schedule an appointment. If a student is too emotional to communicate his or her situation, it may help to schedule an appointment for a later time. This delay gives both parties a chance to calm down and to review the problem.
  • Open your door. This gives a chance for neutral, outside observers to witness the event. Leaving the door open protects both the student and the instructor.
  • Acknowledge behaviors and emotions. You may want to recognize the student’s emotional state at the beginning of your meeting. For example, you could say, “I can see that you are really upset. Can you tell me what you find especially frustrating?” If a student’s behavior becomes inappropriate, point it out to the student.
  • Get assistance. If you don’t know how to approach a conflict situation, get assistance from the student services department. If a student becomes very aggressive or threatening, contact the security team.
  • Keep others informed. If you are concerned that a difficult situation is developing, consider notifying others immediately.

* Based on Conflict Management for Instructors. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.

Thoughts on CRT – Critical Race Theory

In the last few years, there is a public and political debate regarding “The Critical Race Theory” (CRT). It is likely that students would ask about Critical Race Theory, specifically with how contentious this is currently and with a number of states that have – or are trying to pass – legislation (attempting) to prevent teachers from being able to discuss race and white supremacy in their classrooms. What is CRT and what is the debate about? In this discussion board, you are invited to share your knowledge and thoughts about the theory and the debate that surrounds it.

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