Holding brave conversations, inside and outside the classroom

Last week, I was able to present on a topic near and dear to my heart: holding brave conversations with individuals and small groups around important issues.  I was presenting for the latest cohort of Out in Front leaders, a group of LGBTQIA+ adults working in their fields to promote equity and social justice.  We had a rollicking good time, and I learned a lot in the mutual exchange that took place that Saturday afternoon.

As teachers, we have a huge responsibility to live and act according to our values – hundreds of eyes are on us daily.  In the classroom and in the faculty lounge, sensitive topics inevitably come up that require vulnerability, empathy, and care.  I would argue that these same steps that were designed for use in conflict between adults are just as useful when discipline issues persist in the classroom, or when two students need help working together collaboratively.

Based on a variety of resources and personal experiences, I created this presentation and handout that outline 5 steps to effective communication around sensitive topics.

  1. Prepare yourself.  Identify your goal in the conversation and find ways to begin with a clear, grounded presence.  Imagine what success looks like before you begin.
  2. Question with an open mind. Enter the conversation with the other people as though you know nothing about their perspective – because you don’t.  Even with the people we know and love the best, there is a lot we do not know about their experience, so we have to start by asking open-ended questions.  (It’s also helpful to avoid empathy blocks that come up in conversation!)
  3. Mirror and paraphrase.  Reflect back what you think you’ve heard.  Ask: did you miss anything?  Did you change things in your retelling?  Listen to and reflect what is beyond the words, too, like body language and tone.
  4. Speak your heart.  It’s not until all that prep work happens that we can begin to share what’s coming up for us that led to the conversation in the first place!  Be direct and clear about your experience and requests.  Ask for the same undivided attention and mirroring you provided to the other person when possible.
  5. Make a plan.  Don’t expect resolution or clarity from these conversations, especially at first.  However, if you are able to think through possible solutions, build off of one another’s ideas and try to see ways that you can move forward that keeps everyone safe and seen.  Make an accountability plan – even if it just means talking again in a few days to see if new ideas have risen to the surface.

I also generated some real-world scenarios for us to practice with, which have a focus on the issues that often arise for social justice organizers in a variety of spaces.  (Spoiler alert: they are almost all from the lived experiences of me and my friends in community.)  Check them out and let me know if you would add or change any of the information – especially if you have more quality resources to share on this important topic!