Challenging conversations are learning opportunities that can teach everyone involved. The rewards exceed the risks if we prepare for the safety of all involved, including the instructor. Conversation is a personal act. In a professional context, this can be difficult and also rewarding. The instructor is personally invested in the experience of critical conversations - not necessarily on one side or the other of the topic. A fundamental component is to convey the benefits of these discussions. Students need to be able to turn to their instructor for support. They are developing their abilities to explore different, sometimes opposing, opinions and beliefs. Lack of experience requires a safe and well structured educational experience.
"These ideas affirmed our decision to make a small but important linguistic shift to cultivate brave spaces rather than safe spaces to emphasize the need for courage rather than the illusion of safety"
Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice. The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators. Edited by Lisa M. Landreman, Stylus Publishing
In these conversations, the instructor trusts the students to uphold the safe space. The instructor relinquishes control (personal and professional) because the process requires student courage and participation. Students agree to communal ground rules that respect the dignity of all. Each participant should feel that they have the agency to be an active and empathetic listener. This creates a mutually understood learning environment. Then, when in doubt, the instructor and students can refer to the guidelines, rather than each other. The instructor shifts away from a role as expert on the material to a moderator of the guidelines.
With each person who steps up, the conversation becomes more complex. Acknowledge that each contribution is important. Respect each student as a person who is learning. The goal is to develop a deeper understanding of the topic together. All the contriutions to the conversation make the learning experience. Students will learn to navigate challenging conversations that expand their understanding of self and others. They work to be the graduates with perspectives and approaches the world needs.
To support you and your students, materials on this site will help you to:
- Demonstrate skills for facilitating and deescalating a challenging conversation
- Reflect on your own perspective and world view, and the possible perspectives and world views of others in each situation
- Bring effective listening and feedback skills
- Ask relevant and effective questions of students based on the purpose and context of a lesson or activity
- Engage in purposeful storytelling with others
There is no one answer to these situations. These conversations are hard because they matter to us individually and collectively.
These conversations may be around a grade a student received or about a hot topic related to race, politics, religion, gender identity, indigenization, climate change, or other areas where you and/ or students may have different perspectives and opinions.
It is important that we offer students opportunities to have challenging conversations and for instructors to guide them through these in constructive ways. When individuals can have challenging conversations with others, without them turning into heated arguments, they can then work together to be more innovative, productive, and be open to other perspectives.
This site will provide you with some concrete ideas, but will also give you tools to unpack your own and help students unpack their biases to avoid or diffuse unproductive turns in challenging conversations. Such conversations may be hard and often uncomfortable for you and students for the very reason that they are so important.
The Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning offers a short course Challenging Conversations for USask instructors.
This short course is designed to provide instructors with the opportunity to learn how to facilitate challenging conversations in classes, and with individual students, and how to create a supportive space for doing both.
Stories We Tell
As human beings, we tell stories. We tell stories to others about our history and our experiences. We also tell stories to ourselves about ourselves and about others. Often our history and experiences will cloud the stories we tell ourselves, and can get in the way of seeing a clear image of ourselves and of those we’re interacting with.
We come into challenging conversations telling ourself stories about the issue and about the others involved in the conversation. We have biases about others based on race, gender, economic status, citizenship, sexual orientation, and even what grades they may have earned on the most recent assignment. It can be difficult to get beyond these biases, especially if we don’t recognize that we have them.
- What is a story that you’ve told yourself about a situation that turned out to be incorrect?
- What is a story you’ve told yourself about another person that wasn’t accurate?
- What are some assumptions others have made about you that weren’t true?
- Where might these stories and assumptions come from?
Fact vs. Misinformation
Another complicating factor in having challenging conversations may be the accuracy of information about a topic or person that individuals may bring. Biased information sources that students, or even you, may have accessed such as social media sites, posters or email, and radio and television commentators, often aimed at increasing polarization can result in individuals introducing what they may think are facts, not recognizing it as misinformation.
Part of successful facilitating a challenging conversation is trying to ensure that those involved understand any biases that the sources of information may have. Digital Information Literacy is a key tool in helping to cut through misinformation and get to the facts of an issue.
Moving from “I don’t want to get it wrong.” to “Please tell me if I get this wrong.”
These strategies are to help move from avoidance towards engagement. Humans are nuanced. Bring humility to the conversation and avoid blanket statements. Remember that language is power. Be empathetic and adaptive. If needed, ask specific questions to individuals, individually – Do not ask someone from a specific group to represent the views of their entire community.
- Build a positive environment
- Identify a clear purpose, such as:
- To help students feel comfortable and safe with each other.
- To help students learn to build compelling arguments using evidence.
- To encourage engagement with ideas in the course material.
- To help students refine their scholarly thinking through encountering ideas different than their own.
- Establish ground rules
- Provide a common basis for understanding
- Create a framework for the discussion that maintains focus and flow
- Include everyone (such as in an Online Sharing Circle)
- Be an active facilitator
- Summarize discussion and gather student feedback
This list is drawn from the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning & Teaching, Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-Stakes Topics