Rhonda Fitzgerald, the Managing Director for the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network, works to train, mentor, and provide guidance to a broad range of institutions and individuals seeking to transform their communities through sustained dialogue. During a PaperClip webinar on “Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom,” she talked about some specific strategies she used with students, including discussion structures, ground rules and how to protect more vulnerable students without totally alienating the others…

The long and short of it is that the specific strategies that were used are based in the sustained dialogue process. You might be interested in that training, but what types of discussion structures did we use? Always a group of less than 15. Typically not focusing on debate or academic discussion, and prioritizing experience-based sharing.

“Types of ground rules that we set were pretty typical. Lots of confidentiality agreements. Lots of ‘Let’s use I statements that allow us to always make sure that we’re not generalizing in ways that are unproductive.’ And then we talked what I thought was sufficiently about this idea of what’s in-bounds conversation and out-of-bounds, but that conversation wasn’t even thorough enough.

“There were some ground rules, for those of you who are difficult discussion nerds, that I did hear and I was very intrigued by because I hadn’t heard them in other contexts before. One of them was ‘Let’s not run scared from the conversation,’ and I’ve never heard a group suggest, ‘Let’s not run scared from the conversation’ before, so I was, as a practitioner, really listening towards what’s different from this environment than I’ve seen in other conversations about race with similar groups. They had very big goals for being in the conversation, and much of their identities relied on it, which is often the case in the conversation, but that ‘Don’t run scared’ ground rule really surprised me. So, as a person who’s asking that, you may be interested in that unique thing.

“How exactly did the work, were we protecting our most vulnerable students without totally alienating the others? This is going to sound bad for those of you who worry about alienating the others, but I’m trained not to worry about alienating the others. I’m actually trained to say the work that we’re doing is to do no harm, and this is the reason we’re doing something, because we’re not going to sacrifice the experience of some people in favor of the learning of others. So, we talked pretty openly about those moments, and I’m okay with making somebody feel awkward for five minutes if it’s going to prevent true harm based on a subjective measure of such.

“And, so, how exactly did we do that work? We did it in multiple ways. The number one way to protect vulnerable students is not to do dialogue within certain parameters. So, whenever we hit that growth edge of pain or threat or we’re no longer in our prefrontal cortex, saying, ‘Pause. We can no longer do this work, and here’s the reasons I see that we can no longer do this work.’ And they never wanted to stop, but we kept saying, ‘Nope, we just set an intervention point where it’s no longer productive to do this work. There are clearly going to be people who are winners and losers because we are no longer engaging in dialogue; we now have to stop.’ And that, I think, is something you have to be willing to do, but it messes with your syllabus greatly, especially with students who want to succeed. And, so, I think that was probably the most important work.

“Usually the pre-registrations used that prepare people for the scope of this work actually are doing the work of protecting the most vulnerable. So, we ask questions like the following: ‘Dialogue can be extremely stressful, and it might involve hearing views that you do not support. Is this something that you’re willing to do this semester, based on the amounts of stress that you’re experiencing?’ And, so, we ask those questions. They breeze through them. They all said yes, and then when it actually came to pass they were like, ‘Whoa, we didn’t know you meant this.’

“Honestly, a lot of the clashes that they faced were related to higher education and what to expect from educated individuals versus what do you expect from everyday people. And, so, a lot of the learning we did, though ostensibly about racism, was about socioeconomic divisions and educational and class division. And there was a lot of talk about ‘Yeah, what you said wasn’t—it wasn’t what classy people say.’ And, so, we had some very interesting things we talked about openly.”

Learn more from Rhonda and her co-presenter with the On-Demand Training on Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom: Successfully Intervene with Groups Who are Unable to Dialogue.