It’s our responsibility to empower the next generation of student leaders. How? By giving them the tools to address the most pervasive social issues in our world today. When we host meaningful conversations on sensitive subjects, we help our students develop an understanding of the complexity of these issues and gain essential skills that will serve them in their future endeavors. Through honest and constructive dialogue, faculty can foster critical thinking and collaboration among their students—crucial skills to navigate an ever-changing world.

During my recent webinar with Top Hat, we explored how to create safe and productive learning environments where difficult conversations can, and should, take place. Faculty left with tools to set students up for success such as inclusive language to consider in the classroom. Below, I’ve summarized my takeaways for educators looking to foster understanding and meaningful dialogue among students.

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Turning students into engaged and informed citizens

If educators are to drive positive change, we first need to acknowledge how history has shaped current societal norms and beliefs. In the classroom, you might discuss complex topics openly but respectfully, seek out uncomfortable truths that challenge commonly held values and provide an outlet for meaningful conversations to occur. These raw and much-needed discussions offer rich insights on how students can positively impact the world, including their local and global communities. Making real progress within our nation today requires honest recollection of history and timely action based on this understanding. Doing so will equip students with the knowledge and empathy necessary to become informed citizens of our world.

How to set the stage for success

1: Emphasize a culture of peer-to-peer learning 

Ensure students are given opportunities to learn from, not just with, their peers. I recommend setting ground rules at the start of a discussion to avoid potential conflict. Example: “In this class, we will challenge ideas but respect each other’s opinions. We value inclusivity and seek out different perspectives.” 

2: Proceed with humanity and empathy

Students want to know that you’ve got their back. Embracing empathy can help remind students that they belong in your course. Example: “I will create and maintain a safe, respectful environment for discussion. I’m here to listen, guide, and learn with you.” 

3: Reinforce expectations with modeling and consistency

Help students understand how your assignments, activities and tests contribute to their academic and personal growth. One of the best ways to do this is by managing expectations early and often. Example: “I will send a reminder about assignment deadlines both in person and via our discussion platform.”

Prepare yourself to host difficult conversations

1. Let credible and diverse sources guide you

It’s impossible to be on top of every political, racial or social advancement in the world. To stay up-to-date on the latest news while maintaining inclusion, it is crucial to diversify your sources of information. Look for credible data, stay connected to your academic research community—whether at your institution or beyond—and seek out first-hand accounts from those involved in social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter. 

If you would like further strategies for staying knowledgeable about the latest advancements in your field, check out this LinkedIn article that I contributed to along with other innovative scholars. You can also use the customizable template below to solicit recommendations on media and articles from your professional network.

2. Embrace authenticity to foster understanding 

Use authenticity to your advantage. Encourage a learning environment that fosters growth, connection, and critical thinking, which in turn, will give way to open and honest dialogue. Be transparent with your own experiences while considering the context of the conversation, and strive to create a safe space for students to share their perspectives. Remember that how you react during these conversations will influence the way your students might respond.

3. Build connections using mindful listening and reflection 

Pause. Reflect. Repeat. Let students truly absorb your course topics by following this process. Taking the time to check in with ourselves allows us to gain self-awareness while providing an opportunity for deeper learning. You might also weave reflective prompts and exercises throughout your material, allowing students to connect theory to practice. Normalizing contemplative practices can empower our students to become informed global citizens.

Bring your wisdom to difficult conversations

Sensitive conversations are almost unavoidable. From disagreements within relationships to disciplinary actions in the workplace, difficult conversations can arise on any occasion. While these profoundly personal encounters can be daunting, it is essential to remember that all of us have successfully handled a variety of difficult conversations already that we may not realize or remember. The takeaway? We are each uniquely capable of passing on this skill to the next generation.

For inspiration, review a sample chapter from my book Social Problems and Silver Linings. Top Hat also offers practical resources to make classes more inclusive, or guidance on managing microaggressions should they arise.

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