Managing Challenging Conversations

Whether a classroom discussion, a department meeting or simply an informal conversation over coffee, almost any interaction (in person or virtual) between two or more people carries the potential for someone to say or do something that makes someone else uncomfortable. When those interactions start to touch on issues related to diversity, equity, race, privilege, or any number of other controversial topics, the potential for miscommunication and discomfort tends to increase. This page provides suggestions and resources to help anyone manage these challenging moments [Note: The first two accordions are primarily relevant for group discussions and meetings; the third applies to any interaction].

Also see:

When possible, advance planning can help prevent problems from arising in the first place and/or make it easier to address them when they do happen. 

  • Establish ground rules / community agreements. If your group will be meeting repeatedly (e.g., classes, committees), use part of the first meeting to set some group norms; if appropriate, remind everyone of these agreed-upon norms at the beginning of each subsequent meeting. Try to frame agreements as positive actions; it is generally preferable to talk about what one should do rather than what one should not do (e.g., “Monitor turn-taking” rather than “Don’t monopolize time”). Some common agreements:
    • Listen respectfully and actively, without interrupting
    • Monitor turn-taking
    • Use “I” statements
    • Stay curious, work to understand
  • Note that some common ground rules may actually run counter to social justice commitments. See the article Respect Differences? Challenging the Common Guidelines in Social Justice Education (Sensoy and DiAngelo, 2014). Michigan's page on Guidelines For Classroom Interactions has additional examples and suggestions for inclusive use of community agreeements. 
  • Explicitly clarify your values and expectations. Many of the norms and agreements that groups will set for themselves are implicitly built on a common commitment to respect others and, depending on the context, a desire to reach a common goal (e.g., students in a classroom will typically agree they are there to learn; colleagues may agree that they attend department meetings to ensure the smooth execution of department functions). Being explicit about these values and goals can help a group stay focused. Having an agenda for meetings (even if quite general), and beginning each meeting by asking for agreement on the agenda, is one way to keep things on track.
  • Prepare for issues. Perhaps you know that certain issues are likely to arise, given the content of your course or because of past experiences with certain individuals. Planning ahead what you will say and how you will say it can help reduce your anxiety and keep things from getting too far off track; see the “Manage the Moment” section below.

While ground rules often focus on how people interact (don’t interrupt, use “I” rather than “you” statements, etc.), it can also be useful to have a specific protocol for who gets to speak when, about what, and for how long.  

  • Avoid asking people to simply express their general thoughts; instead, keep people focused on the established goal with prompts that will help frame their responses with specific details. If you can provide prompts ahead of time, even better, although that is not always possible. Examples:
    (class discussion) “What do you think the author’s main point was?” rather than “What did you think of the reading?”
    (department meeting) “Does anyone have suggestions for specific changes to the proposal?” rather than “Anyone have any thoughts about this?”
    (book group) “One of the discussion questions for this chapter asked if you had ever had a similar experience; is anyone willing to share their response to that?”
  • Asking people to raise hands and wait to be called on is an established way to control a discussion; as the facilitator, just make sure that you are clear about how you choose who to call on (e.g., first hand up, those who have not yet contributed, round robin, etc.). To encourage greater participation, particularly by more introverted participants, one strategy is to wait until at least three hands are up before selecting someone to speak; it can also help to give students an opportunity to process their thoughts (e.g., in writing, in paired discussions) before asking for someone to speak to the whole group. In meetings of colleagues, you might specifically ask to hear from someone who has not yet spoken.
  • Small Group Discussion Protocols provides 20 examples of protocols for discussion, ranging from fairly informal to highly structured [Dakin Burdick, Center for Teaching Excellence, Endicott College, 2011].
  • Protocols and Resources is a huge compilation of strategies for discussion and assessment [Expeditionary Learning, Appendix].

Even with careful preparation and structure, sometimes people say or do things that offend or hurt others. If you are in a facilitator role, it is important to intervene as soon as you can, to diffuse or avoid escalation, and to repair harm. In the suggestions below, note how having established group norms and values, having an established meeting agenda, and/or practicing what you might say ahead of time, can all make it easier to respond productively.

  • One approach is known as Open the Front Door (OTFD). In this approach, you state what you:
    Observe: “I noticed that you asked Jennifer where she is from originally after she said she is from the Bay Area”;
    Think: “I think you might be assuming that because she looks Asian, she must not be an American citizen”;
    Feel: “I feel uncomfortable with that assumption”; and
    Desire: “I’d like us to recognize that such assumptions can make people feel like they do not belong and that is inconsistent with the community we are trying to build here. I’d also like us to re-focus our attention on the matter at hand.”
  • Another option is the RAVEN approach:
    Redirect: “I’d like to pause the discussion and address something you just said.” 
    Ask questions: “When you asked Jennifer where she is from originally, I don’t understand what you mean by originally, since she already said she is from the Bay Area - can you clarify what you meant?”
    Values clarification: “We have all agreed that one of our goals with this group is to promote understanding and belonging; your assumption that Jennifer must not be a citizen isn’t aligned with those goals.”  
    Emphasize your own thoughts: “It bothers me to hear you say that because I know that Asian and Latinx colleagues often deal with that sort of assumption and it can be hurtful.”
    Next steps: “Perhaps we can talk about where these assumptions come from so that we can avoid these types of microaggressions in the future.”
  • As a general rule, intervening with compassionate curiosity and a desire to better understand why a microaggression has occured will almost always be more effective than accusing, judging or shaming.
  • For additional guidance, see these Resources for Upstanders, and advice for Managing Difficult Moments in the Classroom [Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University]