Last month, my institution hosted a workshop on facilitating discussions on difficult issues, specifically in the classroom. We discussed how to engage in constructive dialogue and practiced handling unanticipated remarks that fall outside of our comfort zone.
The first half of the workshop focused on active listening. The facilitator acknowledged that listening is hard; it’s a low-incentive, low-reward task, but it’s important. She shared a few tips for being a better listener:
- Slow down. Aim to contemplate ideas, not to come to agreement in one conversation. Tell yourself, “Nothing has to be settled tonight.”
- Give your full attention. If it’s a controversial or personal subject, put your phone on silent and try to be present.
- Work from the assumption that all voices have something valuable to contribute. Be sincerely curious about and even grateful for what they have to say.
She also shared tips for speaking to be heard:
- Be transparent about your own positions.
- Slow down. Again, aim to explain, not persuade or convince.
- Use your own language and where possible, ground your ideas in stories about yourself, that connect your ideas to your underlying values.
- Move away from media talking points.
We also discussed the characteristics of a Brave Space, as coined by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens. We want to foster a space of respect for one another, where students are listening to understand, and are willing to experience some discomfort so they can learn.
But when someone says something problematic, either before class or as part of a class discussion, it can be easy to freeze and not know how to respond. I know my first instinct is to correct the record as quickly as possible, but that may shut the student down or make them feel ganged up on, which is not productive.
The workshop suggested that in a moment of conflict, suggest to the whole class, “Let’s take a moment to breathe.” Inserting a moment to pause before responding is important, and gives us a chance to choose the best response.
If you’re like me and you devour advice columns like sugary cereal, you may be familiar with the idea of “scripts” for awkward social situations. What do I say when my neighbor makes a weird comment about my body? How do I ask my boss for a raise? This workshop shared strategies and scripts to address unpopular comments from students:
- “I understand why you’d feel that way/That’s a common view. But what if…”
- “Under what circumstances might you feel/act in the same way?”
- “It can be tough bringing up an opposing view. It helps us better understand why this is such a difficult issue to discuss.”
- “I’m sure this wasn’t the intent of that comment, but that stereotype is harmful because…”
- Validate someone’s feelings even if their perspective is not based in fact.
- Focus on what was problematic in a student’s comment, rather than calling someone racist or sexist.
- Address your comments to the class as a whole, rather than zeroing in on the student who spoke.
There is clearly a difference between dissent and bigotry. The workshop emphasized that expressions of hatred or contempt are not to be tolerated in the classroom, and when a student uses slurs or other microaggressions, that should be interrupted. For example, you might remind the students of the established rules of engagement for the class: “Using a word like that is not showing respect to your classmates.”
Their final takeaways:
- Accept that you can’t make everyone feel comfortable all the time.
- Accept that you may not be able to change a student’s values.
- If you offend someone, own it and do better next time.
- Don’t expect to be a perfect facilitator all the time: We are all unlearning and growing!