Higher education should be a place where ideas (not people) are debated. For many, political polarization and correctness continue to have a dampening effect on students’ willingness to engage in healthy, two-way dialogue. Two equity-minded scholars weigh in on why it’s time to rethink the way we discuss sensitive topics in the classroom—and how to do so in a way that makes everyone feel seen, heard, and most importantly, valued.

True learning begins with embracing vulnerability. This is the mindset that Kristina Ruiz-Mesa, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and Melissa Broeckelman-Post, Associate Professor of Communication at George Mason University, embrace in their own classrooms. “It’s not about avoiding dialogue, it’s about doing so in a way that doesn’t damage people’s experience with their learning and allows them the opportunity to continue to learn in this course,” Ruiz-Mesa says.

The scholars, who are also authors of Top Hat’s Inclusive Public Speaking title, offer their tips for managing difficult class conversations in a respectful and supportive manner.

Watch now: Inclusive Communication Principles for Today’s Classroom

1. Set the stage for the conversation

Raised eyebrows. Folded arms. Grimacing. All three are non-verbal cues that signal discomfort. When you’re entering a conversation that might get heated, these are among the many cues to look for among your cohort. Ruiz-Mesa and Broeckelman-Post’s advice? Don’t ignore discomfort that listeners may have during a broader class discussion. Acknowledge why you’re addressing an issue that arose and not letting it slip through the cracks.

2. Create ground rules for the discussion

Not everyone will see eye to eye on issues related to discrimination, politics, finances and other socio-cultural issues. And that’s okay. Be sure to clearly state some guidelines that will help students understand all sides of a debate. Examples of ground rules could include:

  • Listen respectfully 
  • Respect one another’s views
  • Commit to learning, not debating
  • Avoid blame and speculation
  • Avoid inflammatory language

Tacking these rules onto your syllabus at the start of the term, or having them permanently displayed on your whiteboard, can be a great way to intellectually—and emotionally—prepare students for a class discussion.

3. Model disagreement with ideas, not people

When it comes to resolving issues, “you” statements are a big no-no. In other words, “I can’t believe you just said that!” doesn’t work when addressing a moment of tension. The duo instead recommend making it clear that an idea was hurtful and problematic, not the person. “In order to maintain a community culture, we need to extract the idea and separate it from the person who said it,” Ruiz-Mesa says. This tactic is especially important to emphasize in order to minimize the chance of microaggressions or students feeling targeted. 

4. Use the ‘oops’ and the ‘ouch’ technique

It’s inevitable that some of your students may overlook your ground rules—whether intentional or not—as your course progresses. An in-the-moment solution: the ‘oops’ and the ‘ouch’ tactic. This simple verbal tool allows students to convey that they might be expressing an idea in a way that could come across as hurtful. 

When to use ‘oops:’ Despite their best efforts, some students may struggle to articulate their thoughts clearly and respectfully. Ask students to preface a potentially controversial or provocative statement with “this might be an oops, but here’s what I’m trying to say.” This line helps onlookers realize that the speaker might not be using the right language, but that they’re trying to get there and doing so in a respectful way. 

When to use ‘ouch:’ This term is reserved for students who perceive a statement shared by a peer to be problematic or hurtful. Onlookers may say ‘ouch’ after a classmate finishes speaking. Pause the conversation. Ask the student who just shared their opinion to explain why they would say that. “The ultimate goal is to approach the situation from a place of curiosity to instantly get to the root of the idea, rather than making assumptions immediately about the person’s intent,” Broeckelman-Post says.

5. Wrap up the conversation in a supportive way

You only spend a handful of hours with your students per semester. Realize that the way a conversation ends can directly impact a student’s willingness to show up or participate in future classes. Don’t end your lesson on a sour note or with lingering tension amongst students. Those who were directly impacted by a statement are likely to feel reluctant to engage with you and their peers in your next lesson. Even if time is an issue, you could use the following line before dismissing students: “I’m aware that some of us are uncomfortable after our discussion. I want to make a point of coming back to this at the start of our next class to resolve this together.”

Listening and engaging with empathy and respect is a valuable skill that will see students through their postsecondary years and into their careers. As an educator, take an active role in facilitating, versus suppressing, sensitive conversations. Guide students in seeing alternate points of view that may differ from their own long-held beliefs. Use the college classroom to host challenging conversations and facilitate empathetic listening by employing some of the practices Ruiz-Mesa and Broeckelman-Post lay out. Doing so will help get students one step closer to leading with authenticity outside your course.

Session recording: Tools to Build An Inclusive Class Community

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