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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2009

Eye on Psi Chi

Sumer 2009 | Volume 13 | Number 4


Strategies for Promoting Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom

Janis Sanchez-Hucles, PhD
Old Dominion University (VA)

View this issue as a PDF.

College and university faculty members are often on the alert for viable teaching strategies. Oft en these individuals are interested in becoming engaged in difficult dialogues in the classroom because these interactions draw in student responses and generate energy, enthusiasm, and challenging learning experiences. But difficult dialogues also carry risks. What happens if students are afraid to participate? How does a faculty member handle the outspoken student who wants to dominate the dialogue? How do we learn and teach in a manner that exposes participants to an open mindset and a new way of thinking (Sleek, 1998)? Unfortunately, some faculty are so challenged by difficult dialogues that they employ the "ostrich strategy” of avoiding these discussions and practicing denial about important issues and questions in classroom dialogues (Fernandez, 2008).

We know that bringing students and faculty together for a difficult dialogue to discuss what they perceive to be sensitive subjects is both complex and challenging (Zuniga, 1998). Zuniga notes that college students across the United States have been brought together to participate in facilitated dialogues long before then President Clinton requested a national conversation on race and reconciliation as part of his "Initiative on Race” (One America, 1998). In some groupings of difficult dialogues, the quest to develop positive intergroup conversations centers around issues of diversity, conflict, community, and social justice. Th e focus of these gatherings includes reducing prejudice by examining similarities and differences in experiences, issues of dominance and social justice, promoting meaningful inquiry into relations between self and others, and academic rigor. These courses can be offered as a regular part of the curriculum or as co-curricular activities. Th e overarching theme mediating these groups is that sustained and meaningful inter-group contact, dialogue, and education are necessary to promote healthy, diverse, multicultural communities. Zuniga (1998) highlights the importance of trained facilitators, what these conversations can accomplish, and how to overcome institutional challenges.

Typically, diversity courses are taken by predominantly European American students with few minority members and students of color present (Jackson, 1999). Students’ responses to diversity courses can range from active interest and excitement to anger, silence, avoidance, and passivity (Jackson). Faculty who teach these courses may be White or of color, but they oft en are without any training in how to conduct an effective discussion that focuses on a sensitive topic. As a result, potential fruitful discussions are actively avoided by participants as "too risky.”

This article will briefly identify the potential difficulties inherent in conducting difficult dialogues. The focus will be on some of the explicit and subtle steps to promote a productive dialogue and some of the positive outcomes that can result. The general goal of these dialogues is to increase positive and decrease negative inter-group behaviors towards all individuals. (Pendry, Driscoll, & Field, 2007). A secondary goal is to examine and learn from group dynamics and processes so that biases can be explored and minimized, values can be explored, and strategies adopted in communication styles to promote understanding (Wilcox and McCray, 2005). Whenever possible, reference will be made to the existing literature in this area but in cases where the literature is silent, the perspectives cited will be those of the author.

Potential Difficulties

There are several possible difficulties that can impede the process of having a successful difficult dialogue. An initial barrier for many participants is a lack of knowledge about one’s own cultural background. Many individuals are unaware of or uninterested in their cultural antecedents or those of others. A second problem unfolds with the defensive perspective of some European American individuals who state that they are simply "Americans.” These individuals oft en are unwilling to talk about the various nationalities and ethnic backgrounds that comprise their lineage. By ignoring their own distinctive ethnic backgrounds, majority group members are able to regard their values as "American” and believe that they refl ect the universal reality (Nagda & Zuniga, 2003) and other viewpoints can be disregarded. The goal of initial discussions would be to help all individuals recognize that they have a distinct cultural lineage and to begin to help them recognize and appreciate the backgrounds of other majority and minority participants.

Difficult dialogues can occur around a variety of subjects, situations, and individual attributes such as race, culture, gender, ability, or sexual orientation (Young & Davis-Russell, 2001). These dialogues are challenging because they arouse both intellectual and emotional issues for participants. The conversations may lead European American individuals to feel guilty about racial privilege and become sensitive to the possibility of being labeled "racist." Individuals of color may face stereotyping and become fearful of being treated as representatives for their entire group. The emotional attachments that individuals carry oft en make a variety of topics difficult to discuss with others for academic debate. In addition, faculty and students can feel a strong sense of personal vulnerability if they do not know what areas of their identity are appropriate for dialogue. For example, they may be unsure if issues such as race, sexual orientation, or religion can be brought up and discussed with candor. Hence, faculty and students alike often find it safer to avoid these discussions.

Another potential challenge for many individuals is that they have never had any training in talking about sensitive topics and in facilitating uncomfortable conversations about these topics. Most individuals will veer away from a topic of conversation that appears likely to result in shame, guilt, discomfort, confrontation, or being labeled or judged. Research confirms that discomfort is a likely result of difficult dialogues (Hyde & Ruth, 2002). A survey of graduate students in social work indicated that when students are involved in difficult discussions, they carefully watch, listen, and censor their comments when participating. High self-censorship behavior was related to shyness, unpreparedness, the topic appearing too personal in nature, and large class size. Interestingly, students were less concerned about appearing to be viewed as politically correct, and were less likely to share if the professor had specific ideas of how to think about things. They were more worried about being viewed as "stupid” rather than "racist” or "sexist” and seemed more concerned about what their peers thought about them than their professor (Hyde & Ruth).

Individuals are also reluctant to participate in dialogues that demonstrate the realities of privilege, inequality, bias, and the consequent threats to individuals’ sense of self-worth and identity. McIntosh (1988, p. 71) described White privilege as "an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” Whereas there are many majority members who are willing to acknowledge that some individuals have tremendous emotional, intellectual, political, or financial disadvantages, they often are not willing to talk about how society privileges those who are White, male, Protestant, heterosexual, able-bodied, and middle-income.

Finally, there is the convenient rationalization that these dialogues are inappropriate to academia because these discussions focus on demographic indicators like race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability, and socioeconomic status and these topics are deemed "not academically rigorous.”

Faculty must be aware of these possible barriers to participation and create a classroom climate where cultural differences are made salient and openly discussed. Students can be told in the first class that students are encouraged to share their perspectives and that both similarities and differences among students will be highlighted. Professors should understand and explain that students are often hesitant to talk about how they might differ from others. Frequently, the concept of who faces discrimination is noted but this must be linked to conversations about who enjoys privilege. The faculty member must be aware that she or he should look for potential difficult topics and role model how to participate in conversations without being fearful of being labeled. A highly accepted strategy is for the faculty member to demonstrate an exercise with a student participant. After the demonstration, the faculty member can ask students to choose one other individual to practice what the teacher and participant just modeled. Goodman (1995) notes that when faculty demonstrate that it is possible to be relaxed and comfortable when discussing difficult topics, it helps to reduce students’ anxiety and tension. In this manner, student perspectives can be altered and these conversations will become more attractive and engaging to participants.

Whether or not a difficult dialogue was planned ahead of time as part of a particular lecture, sometimes these events occur. Telltale signs that a challenging conversation is about to develop into a difficult dialogue include: when different viewpoints are made salient in a discussion; identities are challenged; emotions escalate; or individuals step out of their typical classroom roles because they were feeling threatened, disrespected, or dismissed. Faculty must be sensitive to the signs that a difficult dialogue is brewing and stand ready to facilitate the conversation.

Explicit Strategies to Promote Productive Dialogues

So how can a faculty member be prepared to conduct a productive difficult dialogue? The leader of every potential dialogue should create a safe climate for the discussion, focus on both thoughts and feelings and help participants develop the skills for mindful, whole heart, or active listening (Fernandez, 2008; Young & Davis-Russell, 2002). Faculty must point out that participants are encouraged to try to understand viewpoints by actively listening and understanding diverse perspectives. This active listening involves suspending judgment of content and truly hearing the personal voice and opinion of the speaker. But the outcome is not designed so that all will agree. The goal is that all will listen and understand the diverse viewpoints presented by participants in the discussion. Faculty must be aware of what students may be thinking as well as potential feelings of fear, shame, and exposure. The faculty member also should ensure that participants know what the goals of the discussion are so that conversations will stay on track.

The key to a successful difficult dialogue is helping participants develop active listening skills. Faculty should discuss active listening with students before engaging them in difficult dialogues. But much of the growth and true understanding of the process of this type of listening will be revealed as a result of student participation in this experience. This is a process of being open and receptive to information and people who we might have viewed as threatening or discomfiting to us. Young and Davis- Russell (2002) noted some basic instructions for listening include focusing on others, practicing non-judgmentalness, paraphrasing conversations, engaging in gentle inquiry, and maintaining an awareness of one’s own internal dialogue and external behavior.

The first step in creating a safe climate is to develop a brief set of ground rules such as speaking only for yourself, refraining from interrupting, respecting different viewpoints, taking turns, not allowing a few people to dominate, and maintaining confidentiality. It is important to create a safe climate because difficult dialogues are inherently uncomfortable due to their focus on topics that we frequently avoid and are reluctant to be honest about. We avoid these conversations because we may feel guilt, embarrassment, conflict, or some other emotion that we do not want to feel.

In order to help students prepare for difficult dialogues, there are several strategies that faculty can use. First, faculty can require students to read about some of the topics that typically engender difficult dialogues. These areas include privilege, European American resistance, the ambivalence of individuals of color, and "chilly climate issues” — such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender. Second, faculty can help students process their thoughts and responses to what they are hearing, and faculty can spend necessary time with students to talk about their feelings. Faculty should forewarn students that the conversations that they will be engaging in may precipitate feelings that are reactive, defensive, fleeting, and valuable and should not be minimized or ignored. What the faculty member is trying to convey is that individuals will have different reactions to the pressures of a difficult dialogue and that individuals can gain important self insight by processing these reactions. It is also perfectly acceptable to admit to feelings of anxiety, concern, frustration, and anger and to have these feelings reflected and acknowledged by other students and the faculty leader. Difficult dialogues are often accompanied by feelings of urgency and crisis for faculty and students, making the acknowledgement of feelings for both parties especially important (Fernandez, 2008).

A demanding task for the faculty member is to manage his or her own cultural biases while helping students manage theirs. The leader must be open, non-defensive, and willing to share feelings of discomfort, doubt, and uncertainty. A frequent challenge in these discussions is differentiating opinions from facts and acknowledging the complexity of the conversation. One of the key characteristics in difficult dialogues is that participants have different opinions. The facilitator must point out to participants that the goal of the discussion is to air a variety of perspectives respectfully but that it is unlikely that all will come to a consensus. All of this must be done in an environment of relative safety and inclusion.

In order to be effective, it is critical that faculty or group leaders receive training. In 1998, there was recognition of this need for training and over 100 participants met at the University of Michigan to develop the conceptual and practical skills for implementing intergroup dialogues (Zuniga, 1998). Currently, many campuses provide training to their own staff . This training may be offered by the Equal Employment/ Affirmative Action Office, clinical faculty, or counseling departments. Frequently, the decision is made to institute diversity training and/or difficult dialogue training because of incidents of insensitivity by faculty, staff , or students. The training can be developed to focus on the issues of concern but generally the focus is on providing human relations skills with diverse populations. These individuals need to understand themselves within a system of dominance and oppression; be able to develop agendas; handle challenging intra- and intergroup dynamics; be skillful in facilitating conflict, discussions, experiential activities, and community building; and be sensitive to individual histories of oppression. Training needs to equip group leaders with strong skills in helping them to understand and manage student emotions in classroom interactions and providing effective interventions to decrease the resistance of participants and increase opportunities for learning (Vaughn, 2002). Clearly some faculty will enthusiastically participate in this training. There are other faculty, however, who will be uncomfortable with leading discussions that might develop into difficult dialogues. It is important for faculty to have this information about themselves so that they can either facilitate difficult dialogues or avoid them.

Subtle Strategies to Promote Productive Dialogues

Faculty members often ignore a statement or question that could launch a difficult dialogue. This occurs when faculty feel unprepared to cope with the challenges of a heated discussion. Another path taken by optimistic faculty is thinking they can handle a difficult dialogue, but when one develops, they find themselves unprepared. It is vital for faculty to note that an important issue has been raised and to wonder aloud if there is sufficient time to continue the discussion. If there is not enough time to devote to a difficult topic, a specific plan should be developed for a subsequent discussion.

Once the decision to proceed with a difficult dialogue is accomplished, we can expect several outcomes. First, we can anticipate resistance, tension, and discomfort. The majority of students are often intrigued by both active participation and watching others, but do not want to risk embarrassment or scorn by stating something that is politically incorrect.

Some students are prepared to jump right in and assert their strongly-held opinions. When coping with this type of student, it is important not to reinforce these students by calling on them and giving them extended time to participate so that they will feel included. Giving these students extended time to air their opinions may cause other students to view them as privileged. It is also important to be sensitive to and challenge the unintentional slights many students direct at each other instead of ignoring them. Faculty must declare that the classroom is not a democracy where students can say whatever they wish, and that expressions of prejudice are unacceptable. They also must be alert to subtle uses of power when individuals choose to dominate discussion times. The facilitator can mandate that comments be made directly to him or her, even when they refer to other participants. By directing comments to the facilitator rather than to another student, an intermediary is used and the possibility of escalating emotions is decreased.

It is critical that faculty help marginalized individuals find and maintain their voice. Often faculty can use different types of activities such as dividing the class into small groups or asking students to choose one other classmate as a partner. The faculty leaders should always be on the alert for productive and effective behaviors and reinforce these actions.

It is also important for faculty leaders to be fully cognizant of the role that they are playing. As they facilitate difficult dialogues, faculty become targets for projections of anger, shame, and discomfort and these reactions often feel more intense if faculty members are of minority status themselves, although this issue has not been discussed in the literature. Personal experiences of facilitators and those of colleagues often shape responses to verbal attacks. If a participant attacks, the question can simply be asked: "What makes you think that?” This query usually makes individuals reflect on the intellectual and emotional content of their response, and typically there is a backing away from the implied challenge to the authority of the facilitator. If the participant does not back down, the facilitator can call for a five minute break and use this time to talk to the student. A key factor is for the facilitator to stay calm and to let the participant know that he or she is not following the agreed-upon rules for the dialogue.

What are Potential Positive Outcomes?

Given the risks inherent in conducting difficult dialogues, why would a faculty member want to conduct them? The explanation is simple: Difficult dialogues can be one of the most effective teaching strategies that faculty have in their teaching portfolio, one that helps students truly learn the material presented (Zuniga, 1998). These dialogues increase faculty and student skills in exploring potentially sensitive topics. These skills are strengthened each time faculty and students use a positive approach to keep the dialogue going, even if difficult. This happens when individuals feel that they can ask questions typically deemed taboo, share feelings and thoughts, expose limited experiences, disagree, and ask hard questions. Through this process, participants have the opportunity to learn and think deeply about the complexities of social identity and group relationships, and that individuals from different groups may not fit their preconceptions (Zuniga, 1998).

Further, these conversations heighten students’ appreciation of cultural, emotional, and intellectual differences while broadening their perspectives. As students venture into these discussions, they will show an increased willingness to self-disclose, be vulnerable, take risks, and initiate behaviors to learn about others. They can begin to deconstruct stereotypes, overcome prejudices, question what they hear, and develop relationships with different types of people. Students learn how narrow worldviews limit them, and that there are diverse ways of thinking, being, and doing (Goodman, 2001).

One of the most important learning experiences can come from student observations of the teacher who is leading the discussion. It is vital for leaders to be comfortable about sharing their discomfort, admitting to confusion and conflicting thoughts and feelings, and acknowledging that easy answers are not to be found. Faculty who are well-trained to lead difficult dialogues can have a transformative impact on their students. These faculty leaders demonstrate the importance of self-awareness and the reality that personal dialogues may be challenging but they can also be enormously rewarding. A series of studies demonstrate that when college students interact with diverse peers they show greater openness to different perspectives and a willingness to challenge their own beliefs (Pascarella, Edison, Nora, Hagedorn, & Terenzini, 1996), more frequent discussion of complex social issues (Springer, 1995), and increases in cultural knowledge and understanding, leadership abilities, and commitment to promoting racial understanding (Milem, 1994; Hurtado, 2000; Antonio, 1998). What is so instructive for students is that these faculty leaders typically struggle with the same issues as their students.

This article has focused on the general use of difficult dialogues in the classroom but these strategies work well with typical content courses as well. Bronstein and Quina (2003), in their edited volume, Teaching Gender and Multicultural Awareness: Resources for the Psychology Classroom, present articles that infuse gender and multiculturalism into basic courses such as introductory psychology, abnormal, developmental, health psychology, and the psychology of women. Authors in this volume cite many instances of engaging students in discussions of child rearing, gender role socialization, gender and ethnic identity development, communication, abnormal functioning, and clinical psychology to help explain major theories and to give students thoughts to ponder outside of the classroom. Boatright and Little (2003) highlight how a dialogue on female circumcision caused a male African student to feel anger about his culture receiving such controversial feedback from an American audience. When this student asked his grandfather about the practice, he was upset to learn that female circumcision persisted. Th e student reported to his classmates the response of his grandfather. Th e variety of emotions experienced by the student will likely make this topic difficult for classmates to forget.

Bronstein and Quina ( 2003) also include sections in their book that focus on courses that highlight cultural, ethnic, and gender issues in specific populations such as ethnic cultural groups, disability, aging, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex issues, and the psychology of men and women.


To summarize, having well-trained faculty leading difficult dialogues in the classroom can be a richly rewarding exercise with benefits for both faculty and students in learning to listen to and express opinions. As college classrooms become more diverse, classrooms may more oft en become the setting for difficult dialogues. By participating in them, faculty and students can gain a greater appreciation of complexity (Springer, 1995), cultural knowledge (Milem 1994), leadership (Hurtado, 2000) and the promotion of racial understanding (Antonio, 1998). Difficult dialogues are challenging but they off er excellent rewards for faculty and students who are interested in becoming full participants in our increasingly diverse society.


Antonio, A. L. (1998). The impact of friendship groups in a multicultural university. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.

Boatright, S. L., & Little, S. S. (2003). The introductory psychology class from a broader human perspective. In P. Bronstein and K. Quina (Eds.), >Teaching gender and multicultural awareness: Resources for the psychology classroom, (pp. 15-32). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Bronstein, P., & Quina, K. (Editors). (2003). Teaching gender and multicultural awareness: Resources for the psychology classroom. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Fernandez, C. P. (2008, May/June). Managing the difficult conversation. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, 3, 317-319.

Goodman, D. J. (2001). Promoting diversity and social justice: Educating people from privileged groups. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

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Springer, L. (1995, April). Do white students perceive racism toward minority students on predominantly white campuses? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA

Vaughn, B. E. (2002). Heuristic model of managing emotions in race relations training. In E. Davis-Russell (Ed.), The California School of Professional Psychology handbook of multicultural education, research, intervention, and training (pp. 296-318). San Francisco,CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wilcox, D. A., & McCray, J. Y. (2005). Multicultural organizational competence through deliberative dialogue. Organization Development Journal, 23, 77-85.

Young, G., & Davis-Russell, E. (2002). The vicissitudes of cultural competence: Dealing with difficult classroom dialogue. In E. Davis- Russell (Ed.), The California School of Professional Psychology handbook of multicultural education, research, intervention, and training (pp. 37-53). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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Janis Sanchez-Hucles, PhD, is a professor and chair of psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. Dr. Sanchez’s research has focused on recruitment and training, women, multiculturalism, diversity, feminism, and issues pertaining to trauma and violence. She works part-time as a clinical psychologist, consultant, and trainer and has become a national speaker in her areas of expertise. Dr. Sanchez has trained professionals in the health and mental health applications of cultural competency and has highlighted issues of diversity for sports professionals and coaches.

Dr. Sanchez is the author of numerous book chapters, journal articles, and two books: The First Session With African Americans: A Step-by-Step Guide, and coauthor of Women and Leadership: Transforming Visions and Diverse Voices.

Copyright 2009 (Vol. 13, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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