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Difficult conversations

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Difficult conversations are classroom discussions (held face-to-face, or as synchronous/asynchronous virtual discussions) that: 

  • Bring conflicting and deeply-held perspectives to the forefront 
  • Draw from students’ life experiences 
  • Engage students emotionally as well as intellectually in the content/discussion/topic 
  • Tend to involve one or more aspects of students’ identities, such as race, gender, gender identity, social class, sexual orientation, religion or political affiliation 
  • Can place instructors’ own identities and emotions on the line. 

Key Content

Beginning with a Healthy Classroom ‘Ecosystem’

 In “Demystifying the Safe Space,” Matthew R. Kay reminds us that difficult conversations are most effectively held after we have done the work of building safe conversational spaces in our classrooms. Safe conversational spaces are ones in which we aim for students to be “comfortable enough to with their various identities to be open, honest, and vulnerable.” He suggests three conversational guidelines—which must be practiced first with students—to help build a safe space for students: 

Listen patiently 

  • Hands should not be raised while someone is still talking.  
  • Students should never be interrupted—for any reason, including affirmations and agreements. 
  • Practice, and encourage, non-verbal cues that indicate deep listening: smiling, eye contact, head nodding. (This is especially important in a synchronous virtual classroom.) 

Listen actively 

  • Design classroom structures that require students to engage each other and listen actively. (An in-person class might have a discussion notebook in which students write down classmates’ comments; an online discussion might require students to pull quotations from other students’ posts and respond directly to these.) 
  • Follow a thread of a conversation on the board, or summarize a complete discussion thread in a quick video: map students’ comments and illustrate how they builon one another. This can encourage students to cite one another. 
  • Model, and then encourage, transitional language, for example: “Building on Mike’s point...”; “I want to amplify what Regina said...” ; “Bringing together what Avery and Steph said...” 

Police Your Voice 

  • Encourage students to address one another directly, not you. Resist the temptation to respond to every student comment and instead encourage the conversation to flow among classmates, not triangulated through the instructor. 
  • Model succinct, concise and meaningful speech for students. Students should not speak forever—but neither should you. 
Taking an Active Stance in Classroom Discussions

Many difficult conversations will involve issues where some class members have little personal experience, and others have lived experience. These require particular care and an active role on the part of the discussion facilitator. Students who bring primarily stereotypical knowledge about an issue or a group of people not only bring misconceptions to the topic that pose a significant barrier to learning, but can also harm or marginalize—often unintentionally--other students in the classroom. 

Ways to mitigate these concerns in the classroom: 

Be transparent with students about your active role. Throughout the semester—but especially at the beginning—model for students exactly how and when you will intervene in classroom discussion. For example, you could regularly remind students: "Slurs & stereotypes are unacceptable in this classroom, and I will address them immediately in class. However, it’s important we remember that folks all come from different backgrounds, and we are all learning together. We may make mistakes as we engage in these hard conversations about [race, gender, ability, etc.]. Let’s practice a spirit of generosity and assume the best intentions of everyone. If I do correct something you say, please know that I welcome the opportunity to talk to you more about why I intervened.” 

Yes, you probably have to do it publicly. Often we would prefer to correct students privately, after class. That is, of course, what is most comfortable for the student who spoke in error—and, perhaps, for the instructor. But it’s necessary for the whole class community to know that you will intervene and issue a correction when a harm has been committed, even if it is unintentional. Offer clear and concise instructions to repair the harm done: i.e., “Moving forward, we will all commit to using people-first language in this classroom.” 

Practice intervening. Even with the best plans, intervening with students is awkward and challenging, and can feel awful. Practice what you will say, and how you will say it. Practice a kind and supportive tone. Interventions should be brief and compassionate; for example: “I appreciate your thoughtful insight, but let’s not assume that all persons with disabilities are having the same experience.” Or “Thank you for that smart remark; in the future, we won’t refer to women as ‘ladies’ in class discussions.” This also models kind and effective ways for students to intervene with one another. 

Explain to students how they can intervene with you. Learning together means that you will also make mistakes. Offer students options for how they can correct you when you slip up—and think carefully about what kind of intervention might make you the least defensive: approaching you in office hours? Sending you an email? Follow through: be willing to hear criticism from your students, and ask how you can work to repair the concern. Announce your mistake and intentions to the class. Model what you ask of students. 

Connect interventions, transparently, to your lived position or standpoint. For example, you might announce that you strive to be an actively anti-racist educator on Day 1 of the semester—and then explain what that means to your students. Being transparent upfront allows students to understand where you are coming from, so that any intervention does not feel like a surprise, or shock. If you feel comfortable doing so, share why you’ve adopted this standpoint: for example, “I advocate feminism in this class because I have a daughter and I want her to grow up in a world that is more gender equitable. I see you all as an important part of that effort.” 

Different Types of Difficult Discussions

Difficult discussions typically arise in one of three ways: 

  • The instructor introduces the topic as well as the controversy.  Begin with misconceptions, and help students examine how such beliefs are produced and disseminated.  Then explore the research and analytical methods by which your discipline examines this issue.  Particularly in courses where students are first exposed to disciplinary evaluations of common misconceptions (typically in general education courses), students may need multiple and scaffolded opportunities to practice your discipline’s methods of producing knowledge.   
    Example: Racial Inequities in US schools and busing
  • The controversy arises unexpectedly.  If you have introduced the topic by framing the issue within the context of your discipline, responding to a controversy will be easier than backtracking to the beginning.  In either situation, you may need to pull the class back from the emotional moment in order to reestablish the rules for classroom interactions and/or to establish the framework within which the issue is studied within the discipline.  Help students understand that stepping back is not an attempt to evade the controversy, but instead a means to help students think about it productively.  Tie the discussion to the goals of your course or program, including professional goals such as the ability to collaborate productively with diverse colleagues.  
    Example: Evolutionary theory discussions sparks a religious discussion
  • A campus, regional, national or international event is omnipresent and may require discussion.  Addressing controversies in a course where subject matter is not directly relevant takes particular sensitivity.  Acknowledging, say, a sexual assault or racial incident that has become widely known across campus may allow students to refocus their attention on your course. It is reasonable to acknowledge your own boundaries (e.g., I know that this event provokes anxiety in many of us, including me. I want to acknowledge that it has occurred, and I do not have the training to lead a discussion about this.  The campus has resources at X, Y and Z.  Despite the event, we are going to have class today and discuss the topic as assigned.”) 
    Example: A terrorist attack has occurred with high salience to some or many students in the class 
Tips for Implementation
  • Set ground rules with student participation. Teach students discussion skills by helping them monitor their own and the class’ behaviors, including their ability to call others and themselves on violations of the ground rules (see Bill Cerbin's Discussion Evaluation Form (docx) for help with this). 
  • When a disciplinary concept challenges a deeply-valued belief, such as those related to the student’s religion, a measurable outcome is students’ ability to explain a point of view different from their own. 
Further Resources