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Dealing with Conflicts

Specific Teaching Strategies

Class Dynamics:

Establish ground rules for acceptable behavior in writing early in the semester. Remind the students of these guidelines throughout the semester, if need be.

Pay close attention to the patterns of student behaviors, comments, and interaction. If you sense unusual tension, acknowledge it aloud and allow for brief periods when students can express their opinions and reactions. Moderate such discussions carefully to make sure students treat each other respectfully.

Encourage students to listen actively and to be aware of others’ perspectives
. Ways you can do so include these:

1. Asking students to present their beliefs effectively by taking others’ views into account.

2. Asking each student to restate the other person’s point in a manner satisfactory to that person before responding to it. This will help prevent careless arguing.

3. Challenging students’ unwarranted assumptions (such as, “That’s an example of how all Xs act like Y.”)

4. Encouraging students to use a perception check if they fear they have inadvertently offended another student (or modeling such behavior yourself). To do so, describe what you think another person is feeling/thinking and request that the person confirm or correct this. “You seem offended. Are you?” or “Did I paraphrase your last comment incorrectly?” This will help improve intercultural communication by making sure every student feels heard and understood, even when there is a difference of opinion (Brookfield 143).

Encourage students to speak from their own experiences (e.g., “I think…” or “In my experience, I have found…”) rather than generalizing their experiences to others (e.g., “People say…” or “We believe…”).

Raise the issue of “trigger” statements at the outset, particularly if your course contains sensitive or controversial material. Triggers are words or phrases that provoke an emotional response because they often convey, consciously or unconsciously, a stereotypical perception or cause members of the targeted group to feel threatened or diminished. Often, the speaker is oblivious to the reaction his/her remark may produce. An example of a trigger statement might be “If people just worked hard, they could all achieve,” “I think people of color are exaggerating the problem,” or “I think men are just biologically better leaders than women” (Adams 69). To respond to triggers, consider the following suggestions (Adams 78-79):

1. Establish ground rules for class discussion and invite students to come up with a process for identifying triggers in ways that encourage respectful dialogue.

2. Discuss how these statements are experienced differently by members of different groups.

3. Identify triggers in writing when they occur but postpone discussion of them until later in class to redirect the focus to analysis of the statement rather than the person who voiced it.

4. Ask a diverse group of students to monitor the discussion for inadvertent words, phrases or expressions that may be insulting to a participant. At the end of the main discussion, ask the panel to share what they’ve observed and discuss it.

When Discussions Get Heated:

Protect students from personal attacks.
 Stress that discussions are about ideas and issues, not personalities.

Reflect disturbing statements back to the speaker by repeating them very slowly and accurately, perhaps while stressing that you don’t believe this is what the student meant, whether or not you do believe this. After repeating the remark, use a non-verbal cue to invite the student to speak again. Often, hearing the words repeated back non-judgmentally will cause the student to rephrase the remark, changing the language and sometimes the meaning and intent in the process (Frederick 91). This strategy can help students see the implications of their statements without making them defensive or seeming to attack them directly. In the rarer cases where the student repeats the comment defiantly, you’ve gained a little time to recover and to frame an appropriate response.

Give the class a brief timeout and ask them to record their own immediate responses in writing. Invite each student to share his or her response with one other person. Then, ask for suggestions or ideas from the group regarding what just happened (Wladkowski and Ginsberg 47). If appropriate, given the workload of your class or the timing of the comment, you could instead ask the students to write a brief response paper for the next class (Tips for Teachers: Race 4); in it they could outline their opinion on the topic, explain other viewpoints, or explain the possible implications of the points under discussion. To help develop their understanding of multiple perspectives, you could ask them to argue the position they disagree with in their paper

Redirect the focus from the speaker to a topic for general discussion. 

1. Ask students to step back and see how they might make something positive from the exchange or what they can learn from it. Try to move the discussion from personal reactions to a broader, more general analysis of the issues at stake in the disagreement. You might ask questions such as “Some people think that. Why?” and “Why do others disagree?”

2. Turn the conversation to an examination of the terms involved (“What do you mean by ‘unnatural’?”), and how these terms function in society (“How many things are purely ‘natural’ in our society?”). Or, turn to a discussion of kinds and levels of discourse taking place in the room. Does the discussion mirror any parts of the argument being made? Are some students more comfortable with the emotional level of the exchange than others?

3. Return the discussion back to the text. (“Let’s look back at what Baldwin actually said,” or “Where does James discuss this very issue?”)

If class size permits, go around the room and ask each student to state his or her view on the issue and explain the reasoning behind it. This allows every student’s voice to be heard and provides a wider array of perspectives.

After class, talk privately with students who have been deeply involved in the discussion. Consider treating the discussion as a learning moment for the student. For example, you might focus on the importance of careful word choice, thinking about the implications of one’s remarks, or considering one’s audience.

If a student breaks into tears or explodes, ask if he/ she needs time to compose himself or herself. If he/she does leave the room, be sure to find the student after class to discuss the situation and make sure everything is okay. As a last resort, for extremely offensively phrased comments, make sure that the class understands why you feel such comments are not appropriate or helpful.