Difficult conversations are an inescapable part of higher education. You can expect to find diverse experiences, interests, and knowledge in any classroom. These all add to the richness of the learning experience. In the engineering classroom, we run into these difficult conversations less often. However, we must be equipped to facilitate them when they occur.
As instructors, we can anticipate difficult conversations in our learning environments and strategically utilize these as teachable moments. Often it is the role of the instructor to guide students in exploring emotionally charged issues, but leading these discussions is a perennial challenge.
Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that we never fully know which issues will be “hot buttons” for our students.
When learning how to respond in these challenging moments, being aware of your own identity as an instructor is critical, a topic that will be explored further in this module. Knowing your values, beliefs, assumptions, and privileges can help you respond to difficult conversations.
“Know yourself. Know your biases, know what will push your buttons and what will cause your mind to stop. All of us have areas in which we are vulnerable to strong feelings. Knowing what those areas are in advance can diminish the element of surprise. This self-knowledge can enable you to devise in advance strategies for managing yourself and the class when such a moment arises. You will have thought about what you need to do to enable your mind to work again” (Warren, 2017).
In other instances, there are topics that instantly and predictably engender strong and opposing feelings. We understand these types of topics to be “supercharged” in that they are reliably controversial and require careful preparation to approach them in discussions responsibly and effectively.
Both hot button moments and supercharged topics can be helped by preparing and laying the groundwork for effective and productive classroom discussions.
Remember, you probably won’t be an expert when facilitating these challenging discussions, and that is okay!
Using the tips throughout this module should help you feel more confident in facilitation.
The content on this page is adapted from the following resources:
Centre for Teaching. (n.d.) Difficult dialogues. Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/difficult-dialogues/
CNDLS. (n.d.). Difficult discussions. Georgetown University. Retrieved from https://cndls.georgetown.edu/difficult-discussions/
Warren, L. (2017). Managing Hot Moments. Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University. Retrieved from https://eloncdn.blob.core.windows.net/eu3/sites/126/2017/04/Managing-Hot-Moments-in-the-Classroom-Harvard_University.pdf
UBC Equity & Inclusion Office. (n.d.). Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in Teaching and Learning [Online course]. Canvas@UBC. Course URL: https://canvas.ubc.ca/courses/31444
This section has been adapted from the “Navigating Difficult Conversations” module of the open canvas course, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in Teaching and Learning. Some of the content has been tailored to the engineering context.