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Facilitating Difficult Discussions

Difficult discussions—often involving race, class, politics, religion and gender—can be anxiety provoking experiences. You might be worried about being forthright with your opinions without hurting another person’s feelings, or about being able to anticipate or even control the outcome of the discussion. However, if you and your students approach conversations about difficult topics from a place of respect and openness to other viewpoints, those conversations can lead to authentic learning. With this in mind, here are a few tips for facilitating discussion on difficult topics in ways that add to student learning.

Before Class Begins 

Before your course begins, reflect on potential “hot button” topics that relate to your course and the learning outcomes you have established for your students. How do these topics intersect with what you want your students to learn? How might conversations about these topics also engage with your program’s, department’s, or DePaul’s learning outcomes?  

For example, using DePaul’s learning outcomes as a basis, you might consider how difficult conversations might help your students “articulate their own beliefs and convictions, as well as others’ beliefs, about what it means to be human and to create a just society” and “evaluate ethical issues from multiple perspectives and employ those considerations to chart coherent and justifiable courses of action.” (Goal 3: Personal and Social Responsibility)

Consider including a statement in your syllabus, if appropriate, about how difficult dialogues may factor into the learning goals you’ve established for your course.

Beginning of the Quarter

Shape the beginnings of a learning community.

At the beginning of the quarter, you’ll want to establish your class as a learning community (whether physical or virtual) that supports open, respectful dialogue. One way to do this is by learning your students’ names and encouraging them to learn one another’s names. If possible, have your students get to know one another by incorporating an “icebreaker” activity on the first day. You can even incorporate a review of your syllabus into your icebreaker activity. Maryellen Weimer, writing in Faculty Focus, describes a professor who does both on the first day:

Syllabus Speed Dating – Karen Eifler, an education professor at the University of Portland, designed this activity. Two rows of chairs face each other (multiple rows of two can be used in larger classes). Students sit across from each other, each with a copy of the syllabus that they’ve briefly reviewed. Eifler asks two questions: one about something in the syllabus and one of a more personal nature. The pair has a short period of time to answer both questions. Eifler checks to make sure the syllabus question has been answered correctly. Then students in one of the rows move down one seat and Eifler asks the new pair two different questions. Not only does this activity get students acquainted with each other, it’s a great way to get them reading the syllabus and finding out for themselves what they need to know about the course.”

For more icebreaker ideas, the Center for Teaching Excellence at Lansing Community College has published a list of 32 icebreakers.

Establish ground rules for respectful dialogue.

If you co-create ground rules for respectful dialogue with your students, you can establish expectations early on and have something to fall back on if things get heated later in the quarter. Doing so also indicates that you take discussion seriously as a valuable learning experience.

A class engaged in a discussion outside

One way to have students create their own ground rules is offered in Brookfield and Preskill’s Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms:

  1. Individually, have students reflect on the best discussions they’ve ever had, and give them some time to write down a few characteristics that made them so memorable.
  2. Then have students consider the worst discussions they’ve ever had, and have them write down a few characteristics of these discussions.
  3. Have your students break into groups and share their reflections, beginning with the positive experiences and then the negative. Have students take notes on what patterns emerge—what do they have in common about their experiences with good discussions, and what made the bad ones so awful for everyone?
  4. Taking account of both the positive and negative characteristics that emerge, have students write down at least three suggestions to propose as ground rules for discussion.
  5. Have each group report back, making note of each suggestion on the board. Are there suggestions that came up more than once? Are there suggestions that the whole group endorses as significant? Identify the most important ones and incorporate them as the ground rules for future class discussions. 

If you don’t have time to co-create ground rules with your students, consider adopting some for your class to follow. Here are some sample ground rules for discussion, courtesy of the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence at Carnegie Mellon:

  • Listen actively and attentively.
  • Ask for clarification if you are confused.
  • Do not interrupt one another.
  • Challenge one another, but do so respectfully.
  • Critique ideas, not people.
  • Do not offer opinions without supporting evidence.
  • Avoid put-downs (even humorous ones).
  • Take responsibility for the quality of the discussion.
  • Build on one another’s comments; work toward shared understanding.
  • Always have your book/readings in front of you.
  • Do not monopolize discussion.
  • Speak from your own experience, without generalizing.
  • If you are offended by anything said during discussion, acknowledge it immediately.
  • Consider anything that is said in class strictly confidential.

During Class

There are a number of strategies you can rely on when things get heated during class discussion. Here are a few:

Refer back to the ground rules that were established earlier. For instance, if an exchange of ideas devolves into a series of character attacks, remind students that everyone agreed to critique ideas, not attack people.

Encourage active listening and empathetic responding. You can model how to be an active listener by asking follow-up questions such as, “I think I hear you saying… Is that what you meant? Could you tell me more about that?” You can also ask students who are engaged in a heated exchange to listen carefully to one another and state a summary of what they heard before replying with their own point of view. Encourage students to ask follow-up questions that are meant to aid understanding (“What makes this important to you? What led you to this view?) versus questions or statements meant to hurt (“Why would anyone say that? That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard”).

Pause the discussion to let things cool down. Ask them to take five minutes and write out their feelings about the discussion and ideas being presented. This gives students time to allow their emotions to cool—and gives you a chance to consider how to keep the conversation productive. Later on, you could also ask students to take a moment and, in five minutes, write an argument for the position with which they most disagree.

Ask for different views. Encourage students who hold differing views to share their perspectives and reasons for it. Model active listening by reflecting back what you heard, and encourage your students to do the same.

Invite Students to Invoke “The Five-Minute Rule." In their book, Brookfield and Preskill offer a strategy that seeks to provide a remedy to marginalized views being discounted or ignored during a class discussion. If anyone during class feels that a perspective is being marginalized, then they can invoke “The Five-Minute Rule,” at which point the class takes five minutes to contemplate the potentially marginalized point of view from the perspective of its proponents. Critiques are suspended during this time and only those who can speak in favor of it are allowed to. The following questions may be used as prompts, if appropriate:

  • What’s compelling about this view?
  • What are some interesting features of this view that might be missed by those who don’t hold it?
  • If you were to believe this view as true, what would be different for you?
  • In what sense and under what conditions might this idea be true?

Avoid engaging in “political seepage.” Making sarcastic off-handed comments and engaging in partisan humor not only comes across as mean-spirited, but also can be divisive, creating a rift in the sense of fairness that is vital to an educational community. (For more on this topic, see Hesse and McAvoy’s The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education.)

Consider using a therapeutic model like Reflective Structured Dialogue. Using an approach developed by a group of family therapists in Boston decades ago, Jill DeTemple has found good results when things get heated in her religious studies classes at Southern Methodist University. The Chronicle of Higher Education, reporting on Jill DeTemple's teaching practice (and subsequent research) using this model, offers an example of how this approach might work.

Reflective Structured Dialogue opens ... with the facilitator having participants tell a story that has informed [their approach to a difficult topic]. So to start off a discussion about guns, for instance, students might share their experiences hunting as a child, or describe an act of gun violence that touched their lives. Next, participants talk about the values that underlie these experiences. Then they talk about any ways in which they feel pulled in competing directions on the issue. That third question, DeTemple says, is meant to bring out empathy. Only after working through the three starting prompts do participants start asking each other questions. The goal is not to have anyone switch sides, she said. It’s to help students change the way they relate to one another, to listen and consider different perspectives. Doing so, it turns out, can enrich students’ understanding of difficult content, DeTemple has found, since they have an opportunity to consider it in context.

Gathering Feedback

Critical Incident Questionnaire

Here is yet another strategy from Brookfield and Preskill, which solicits anonymous student anonymous feedback at the end of each week:

  • At what moment in class this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  •  At what moment in class this week were you most distanced from what was happening?
  •  What action that anyone (teacher or student) took this week did you find most affirming or helpful?
  •  What action that anyone took this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What about class this week surprised you the most? (This could be about your own reactions to what when on, something that someone did, or anything else that occurs). 

Look for any patterns in the feedback and report back to your students during the next class meeting, inviting them to discuss and comment on the findings.

Midterm Self-Assessments

Invite your students to provide feedback about how the course is going during the middle of the term, so both you and they can make any course corrections before the term is over. You can either do this yourself, asking your students to answer the following three questions and having them submit them to you anonymously, or you can request that someone from the Office of Teaching, Learning and Assessment facilitate a session for you.

  1. What aspects of this course are most helpful to your learning?
  2. What changes could be made in the course to help you learn more effectively?
  3. What can you as a student do to improve your learning in this course?

Further Reading

DePaul Resources

Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity

Faculty can learn more about building an inclusive community by completing the BUILD Diversity Certificate, a professional development opportunity sponsored by the Office of of Institutional Diversity and Equity (OIDE). In addition to offering the BUILD Diversity Certificate, OIDE provides grants for cultural programming, hosts the President's Diversity Council, and ensures compliance with DePaul's Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy and Procedures.

Office of Multicultural Student Success

Multicultural student support is a key strategy in DePaul University's efforts to admit, retain, and successfully graduate low-income college students, first generation college students, and students of color.

DePaul Women's Network

An organization for all women faculty and staff at the university, the DePaul Women's Network offers resources, professional development, networking events and more.​

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