“By and large, university professors begin their faculty careers with fresh degrees and highly refined academic and research skills. We are content experts. We know our subjects; we can write about them, talk about them, research them, defend them. But most of us have spent very little time learning how to teach and virtually none preparing ourselves to deal effectively with controversy.”
(from the Start Talking resource mentioned below)
In the wake of the recent, highly-polarized and polarizing U.S. election, I have been thinking a lot about how to effectively engage in conversations across difference and, in particular, how we as educators can facilitate such dialogue. As an intercultural educator (whose research and studies have actually focused on the learning process), helping people bridge across differences is an important part of what I do. I know how hard it can be. So I recognize and understand that educators in other disciplines might not be particularly keen on facilitating these types of conversations, which are often laden with emotions (students’ and ours). It can be scary to allow students to go down an emotional path, especially when we don’t know exactly where it leads. But students need to have this kind of experience in an environment where they can learn constructive processes for dealing with such controversy. If we want students to be able to communicate and interact effectively and appropriately with people who are different from them, we have to provide spaces for them to learn to do so developmentally across the disciplines. Some institutions try to meet this need by encouraging more students to go abroad. But we don’t have to go to another country to find opportunities to interact with people who are different from us. And just being exposed to another culture or confronted with difference will not necessarily produce the type of intercultural skills I’m talking about (all the polarizing rhetoric surrounding the U.S. election demonstrates that).
So how do we provide these spaces? How do we help our students engage in constructive conversations through which they can learn from one another and grow together instead of growing apart (or worse)? And, quite frankly, how do we practice this ourselves so that we can be more effective at modeling and facilitating this type of engagement for students?
I’d like to share a story. Many years ago, I was teaching an intercultural communication course for students with personal international experience. As I do with all of my intercultural courses, on the first day I explained the objectives for the course—which included asking students to push themselves outside of their comfort zones and try to see things from different perspectives—and we spent time collaboratively setting expectations and ground rules that would help us together achieve the objectives.
One day part-way through the semester we were discussing racism, power, and privilege. The sole African-American student in the class made a statement indicating he felt blacks couldn’t be racist. Several students began to react almost immediately to this statement. It’s hard to recall, but I’m guessing I probably had a bit of a physical reaction as well—a physical “uh-oh,” if you will. I had no idea where this conversation would lead us. But I also recognized our collective reaction to this statement as a signal that we needed to have the conversation. I took a breath. “Time out,” I said, signaling a ‘T’ with my hands as if I was a referee. I reminded students of the expectations we’d set at the beginning of the semester, highlighted this as a learning opportunity, and asked them to listen for understanding as opposed to formulating their own response while others were talking. I asked them to raise their hands and wait to be called on if they wanted to speak (not the typical protocol in the class). Then I asked the student who had made the statement if he would care to explain further what he meant. He did, and the conversation proceeded from there with students asking questions, sharing, and demonstrating respect for one another’s very differing opinions and experiences. They did not reach agreement, but it was obvious they were trying to understand one another. After a while I said it was time to move on and we did. The whole conversation probably lasted no more than ten minutes.
At the end of that class (and even on the end of the semester evaluations) numerous students commented on how beneficial they found the conversation and how pleased they were that I allowed them to discuss such a controversial issue in class. Several said that they had assumed I would shut the conversation down the minute the initial comment was made.
Looking back, there are things I recognize I could have done better and things I’ve learned since that I hope I would be able to apply if a similar situation were to arise. I’m not saying that it’s a perfect example of how to facilitate a difficult conversation. The point I want to make is this: something unexpected arose in class, I made an in-the-moment decision that this was a conversation we ought to have and could be a learning opportunity and so provided a framework and guidance to facilitate such a conversation, and it was greatly appreciated by the students. More importantly, they hopefully walked away a bit more knowledgeable about how they can effectively engage in conversations across difference. If nothing else, I think it was more productive than if I had let the student’s comment dangle or shut it down, which would have likely led to less productive conversations out of class later.
I certainly do not have all the answers when it comes to facilitating difficult conversations, but would like to share the following suggestions and resources that you might find helpful.
I want to end by sharing another story that I believe emphasizes the value of doing our own intercultural work (and may perhaps expand your idea of intercultural competence). My father and I have always been quite different. From our political views to attitudes toward our bodies and health, we’ve always been on opposite ends of the spectrum. Although he was quite private and never much liked difficult conversations, he always met my attempts to understand (and, admittedly, often to convince) him with a kind and frequently humorous response. I have spent much of my adult life working to practice what I preach around intercultural competence in my relationship with him, especially trying to empathize and understand the perspective of someone addicted to smoking for over 50 years (who continued to smoke when diagnosed with COPD, put permanently on oxygen, and even after being diagnosed with lung cancer). Although I love my father dearly, trying to understand this from his perspective has been extremely difficult. My dad passed away in October at age 65. Looking back, I am incredibly thankful that I have an intercultural practice and worked to apply these skills in my relationship with him (even though it sometimes seemed futile). I can’t say I understand his perspective completely, but I see him and the choices he made in a much more complex light than I once did. And I have compassion where I could have had bitterness. I know that this has helped me be more of the person I want to be these last few years in our relationship and in his death.
As I said earlier, I know I have more to learn when it comes to engaging in and facilitating difficult conversations. I think this is a skill that needs to be practiced regularly and will always involve a certain level of ambiguity. In addition, cultural context plays an important role and these suggestions are aimed primarily at a U.S. context; approaches in cultures where, for example, communication tends to be more indirect, would likely differ significantly. But I hope my thoughts and the following resources might be helpful to some of you. I invite you to share your own insights, feedback, and experiences in the comments section. And if you enjoy the blog, please sign up to receive my monthly newsletter, which includes additional resources.
Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education: A free downloadable guide developed by Alaska Pacific University (APU) and the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) with support from the Ford Foundation. The guide reports a threefold initiative consisting of the following: they engaged in training via a series of faculty intensives, went out and taught differently for a year, and then came back together to share what they learned.
The University of Michigan’s Center for Teaching and Learning: The website provides some helpful guidelines for discussing difficult or controversial topics.
Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory (ICS): The ICS is a cross-culturally valid assessment tool for identifying core approaches to improving communication, resolving conflicts and solving problems across cultural differences.
Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Fink, L.D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Schaetti, B.F., Ramsey, S.J., and Watanabe, G.C. (2008). Personal Leadership: Making a world of difference: A methodology of two Principles and six practices. Seattle, WA: FlyingKite Publications.
The following are a number of helpful references that discuss IDI-guided development, or how to facilitate intercultural learning in a developmental way:
Bennett, J.M. (2009). “Transformative training: Designing programs for cultural learning.” In Contemporary leadership and intercultural competence: Exploring the cross-cultural dynamics within organizations, ed. M.A. Moodian, 95-110. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Bennett, M.J. (2012). “Paradigmatic assumptions and a developmental approach to intercultural learning.” In Student learning abroad: What our students are learning, what they're not, and what we can do about it, eds. M. Vande Berg, R.M. Paige, and K.H. Lou, 90-114. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Hammer, M.R. (2009). “The Intercultural Development Inventory: An approach for assessing and building intercultural competence.” In Contemporary leadership and intercultural competence: Exploring the cross-cultural dynamics within organizations, ed. M.A. Moodian, 203-217. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Hammer, M.R. (2012). “The Intercultural Development Inventory: A new frontier in assessment and development of intercultural competence.” In Student learning abroad: What our students are learning, what they're not, and what we can do about it, eds. M. Vande Berg, R.M. Paige, and K.H. Lou, 115-136. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Gregersen-Hermans, J., and Pusch, M.D. (2012). “How to design and assess an intercultural learning experience.” In Building cultural competence: Innovative activities and models, eds. K. Berardo and D.K. Dearorff, 23-41. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
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I'm Tara Harvey, Ph.D., Founder of True North Intercultural LLC. I started this blog to provide resources and support to educators interested in fostering intercultural learning. Thanks for reading!
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