Difficult Conversations: Report from CHEP

Members of the Graduate Academy for Teaching Excellence partnered with the Academy of Teaching Excellence to host a packed session on facilitating difficult conversations in the classroom at last week’s Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy. The write-up below is a (very) partially-processed transcription of the session. For the key takeaways re: strategies, scroll down or click here :

After brief introductions we did a quick round robin: What is ONE word you associate with difficult conversations in the classroom? The answer:

Asked what brought us to the session produced an array of responses from a wide range of disciplines and fields:

In the Social Sciences we avoid these conversations but don’t acknowledge that we are avoiding them; We have them but not enough; need to reinvigorate commitment to having them. Social work is all about difficult conversations;

Preparing students for careers in management; racism inevitable; how to see world from a realistic perspective; Strategical and operational planning to mid-career military officers;Diversity in hiring practices among librarians; How to have difficult conversations with people who think they are past that?

Early childhood cognition: addressing biases, egocentric thinkers; difficult to help people step back; Teaching human sexuality and family relationships so material can be difficult.

Musicologist, working with residential community LGBTQ issues; lines between social justice and identity difficult to negotiate; Teaching philosophy and ethics — Super comfortable talking about difficult topics in the abstract, but how to engage the real world? Teaching Appalachian Studies — challenge of creating a safe classroom space and an awareness that when students leave the classroom the environment changes. Better understanding of life outside the classroom. As only black faculty member teaching Afro-American Literature — how to deal with students’ expectations; silence? How to actually talk about the issues, relieve some of the tension?  Teaching writing (English) to developmental students; also online; lots of engagement with difficult topics; Students question why diversity / inclusion are topics – “just want to learn to write”; Challenges of teaching English in other countries; students go off topic; Teaching composition and critical thinking: difficult conversations are a subset of these.

Biochemistry — challenge to avoid bias or at least raise awareness around bias. Ethics and critical thinking in health for students aspiring to careers in healthcare. How to get past students silence; reluctance to engage? Health Sciences; personal wellness. Tempting to avoid difficult conversations, because they are difficult; doesn’t want to offend students. Health Sciences: ethics and critical thinking; How do I assess students on these issues?

Environmental Engineering — how to allow for contentious discussions? Wants tools to engage students around ethical issues. In Engineering, conversations about race, gender, sexuality invite some push back; want to learn how to incorporate difficult conversations throughout the course – higher level of engagement.

Computer Science thinks difficult conversations are irrelevant. As minitory faculty member feels responsibility to bring these issues to classroom
Bring these issues to classroom and to life outside (real world); how to empower students?

Goals for desired outcomes of the session were similarly diverse but also grouped around shared concerns:


Want tools to become a capable facilitator; Trusted facilitator as goal; Engaging other people’s perspectives; See world through others’ eyes.

Looking for more ways to involve Students in conversations without having them shut down or disengage; Strategies to help students get beyond niceties, really engage; How to get past self-protective politeness?  Want to learn more about having any type of conversation in my class.

Concerned that students misunderstand when I try to have a difficult conversation or conversation about a controversial topic; Fear of offending someone.

I want to have difficult conversations that do not negatively affect my teaching evaluations.

Difficult conversations are everywhere. How to handle them? Prevalence of difficult conversations in Inside Higher Ed articles; Why are difficult conversations so pervasive now? How to make your way after the 2016 elections?

I LOVE having difficult conversations.

What do we do before the conversation and how do we follow up?

Have students listen to each other; question why they believe what they believe; from perspective of developmental psychology; Invite the identities in the room to be represented equally; Invite students to bring their real selves; full selves; Raising awareness around lived experiences; Committed to environment that allows students to unpack their white privilege.

Inspired by Libby Roderick’s work with the Difficult Dialogues Initiative, we moved to a Paired Listening Exercise, asking people to listen to their partner speak for two minutes on the topic:

What does a successful conversation look like in your classroom?

Some responses included:  Empathy – how to recognize and cultivate it;  Walk in someone else’s shoes; recognize that racism is learned behavior;  Providing back channels and alternate ways for students to voice unpopular opinions;  Students need to be heard; Seating arrangement and the physical space matters. If you aren’t in a conducive space, move.

How did paired listening feel to participants? 

Listening: Hard to contain the nonverbal affirmation;  I’m not used to having someone listen to me;  Everyone’s story deserves to be heard; Hard to actually listen (understand vs. hearing); Practicing basic communication skills; Realized that what constitutes respectful listening is inflected differently in different cultures.
Speaking: Avenue to think more clearly by talking myself into the topic;  Uncomfortable; attention from listener was uncomfortable.

Facilitation Strategies for Difficult Conversations:

Prepare groundwork ahead of time: Have students do something before they come to class: watch video; fill out form; reflect, etc.;

Modified privilege walk – modified – pick identity out of a hat. Take a whole class to do the activity. This builds empathy.

Learn people’s names.

Name the space: it’s ok for it to be awkward.

Bridge from the emotive to the cognitive; use the google to verify (or not) assumptions.

Try things on. Encourage students to change their minds

Start discussion in a small group – easier to get started.

Talk about socialization cycle and process; break down how and why we bring different lived experiences to the classroom

Oral histories – interview someone with different generational, socio-economic, perspective

Consult Kevin Kumashiro’s work on how to manage unexpected difficult conversations.







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