Difficult Discussions

Difficult discussions are an inescapable—and, in fact, helpful—part of higher education. Particularly in the tumultuous times in which we find ourselves now, these conversations can crop up in all kinds of courses, whether they focus on topics of public controversy or not. Although disagreement among students can be a daunting prospect, if we approach the situation thoughtfully, faculty can help students to explore “hot button” issues in a constructive way that promotes both personal and academic growth.

Georgetown Professor Marcia Chatelain on finding a balance during difficult classroom discussions:

Below you’ll find some tips and a list of resources for faculty who actively seek to engage students on current hot topics, as well as those simply looking to be more prepared when these topics arise. 

Having Difficult Conversations

A difficult conversation around a disagreement can be a crucially productive moment in a semester—and sweeping such moments aside when they flare up often leads to problems, including students feeling unheard, alienated, hurt, and unsure where you stand—but you do have to work to make sure these moments are productive.

Handling difficult conversations comes in two phases. The first is the laying of a foundation for productive discussions. Early on in the semester it’s helpful to acknowledge that these kinds of moments may crop up, and to give students guidance in advance on how to handle them. For example, either on your own or with the participation of students, you could come up with ground rules for class conversations, rules that might include things like:

  • People in the discussion should avoid name-calling and blanket judgments about one another.
  • More generally, focus comments on arguments, not on the people making the arguments.
  • People should feel free to step out of the classroom (or turn off cameras in Zoom sessions) if things become too hot.
  • Connect the conversation to course material.

You might need to prepare yourself as well. What are your hot buttons? What’s likely to make you uneasy or upset? What will you do when your buttons get pushed?

Once you’ve done the groundwork of preparation, the second phase of handling difficult discussions is dealing with the discussions as they happen—and they may flare up quite unexpectedly. A few strategies to consider:

  • Remind students of the ground rules you’ve set up. (This is one of the reasons you lay them out in advance—so that you can invoke them when necessary.)
  • Be sure to manage your own response to flare-ups. If you need a moment to compose yourself, take one. For example, try turning to walk to the blackboard and taking the time to write something on the board. Or, in a virtual environment, take a moment to create a Google doc so that you can take notes there. And again, in a virtual environment, asking everyone to turn cameras off can help them and you to feel less vulnerable. (Though leaving cameras on can also help to build an atmosphere of trust, so there are tradeoffs.)
  • Using the board or digital notes also reminds students that this is about ideas, not about judging the people in the room. If someone says something really inflammatory, perhaps detach the idea from the student by writing it down as a statement that can be analyzed.
  • If the topic is too big and hot, too hard to manage in the moment, you can always suggest postponing until the next session, giving everyone time to gather themselves. You can even suggest relevant homework (e.g., “Each person should come in with one scholarly source on the subject”). Just remember to come back to the topic; as mentioned above, avoiding these difficult moments altogether can have consequences.


Difficult Conversations, Virtually Speaking: This resource from California State University Channel Islands is a thoughtful take on how we need to approach difficult discussions in a virtual classroom, focusing on challenges to consider (e.g., the extra barriers to listening effectively in a video gathering) as well as the helpful tools available to us in this environment (e.g., anonymous polling).

Tips and Strategies for Difficult Discussions: CNDLS prepared this collection of practical pedagogical ideas to help you prepare for and navigate difficult conversations, whether they’re part of your course plan or they arise spontaneously in the classroom. We cover everything from setting expectations to handling strong student feelings and self-care, and more.

Handbook for Facilitating Difficult Conversations in the Classroom: Prepared by faculty for faculty, this handbook (July 2015) assembles numerous resources on how to have difficult discussions, including resources that dive into the specifics of such topics as race, multiculturalism, microaggression, and implicit bias. It ends with a list of common strategies.

Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center: This is an initiative with years of experience fostering “difficult dialogues” on campuses across the country. Their website provides strategies, resources, and information about projects that address a wide array of issues and topics, including: fundamentalism and secularism, racial and ethnic relations, the Middle East conflict, religion and the university, sexual orientation, academic freedom, civility in everyday life, and race. The website also contains their well-known book Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education.

The University of Calgary’s Resources for Teaching Controversial Issues: This site offers a list of hyperlinked tips and articles, including research on the benefits of debating difficult topics, insights on overcoming obstacles to critical thinking, and leveraging active learning techniques to facilitate deeper engagement.

AAC&U’s statement on Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility: The AAC&U is the leading national association of undergraduate institutions of higher education focused on liberal education. Their statement attempts to identify what academic freedom is, articulate its value, and delineate what it means to responsibly engage diversity in our institutions of higher education, all in the service of facilitating the kind of learning that will allow students to positively contribute to society.

CNDLS’ Inclusive Pedagogy Pamphlet: Our pamphlet assembles a variety of strategies and resources to help you make your classroom a place where all of your students can learn—even when conversations become heated.