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How to Engage in Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom

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It's important to contribute to classroom conversations, not only because doing so demonstrates your participation but also because it's how you get direct answers to whatever's on your mind. However, many students find it difficult to open up in a critical fashion, especially when it comes to topics pertaining to race, politics, identity, and culture. Don't be intimidated or unsure— especially once you get to college! If you find yourself wanting to participate in an in-class conversation that might be more difficult, keep these guidelines in mind.


Be Respectful

Whether you're participating in a classroom debate or bringing up an alternative perspective, it's essential that you do so respectfully. That means following any rules established by your teacher, like not cutting off another student. If you're worried that you'll forget what you wanted to say, write it down and bring it up when you have the floor.

Be a Good Listener

The difference between a monologue and a dialogue is in the number of people involved. Your goal isn't to show that you're capable of giving a rehearsed speech, but rather that you can meaningfully engage with your classmates and teacher. That means listening! It's hard to put yourself in someone else's shoes and try to understand where they're coming from, but that's the point. This doesn't mean that you have to sit on your passionate opinions, but it does mean that they should respond to what's been said thus far. Instead of sitting there coming up with your rebuttal, take in what the other person is saying and process it. A productive conversation can only happen when both sides listen.

Be Intentional With Your Language

As you've likely learned studying for the SAT or ACT and working on drafts of your college admission essays, the words you use are important! Language can be divisive and charged, but also confusing or misleading. There's power in how we combine words, so it's important to think before you speak. Run through a mental checklist. What point am I trying to make? Could what I'm saying be misinterpreted or hurtful? Are the words I'm using appropriate and clear to my audience? Just like you would edit an essay, edit your dialogue.

Ask Question

Even if we try to be intentional with our language, mistakes will still be made. That's why it's important to ask questions for clarification or intent. A clarifying question could be "What do you mean by ___?" or "What is your source for that statement?" Asking questions is a form of active listening that benefits everyone participating. The better you understand someone's point of view, the better the overall conversation will be.

Do Your Research

Difficult conversations flow better when you have examples to point to, but those pieces of evidence need to be reputable. If you're discussing something you noticed in the news that's relevant to class, make note of the source and any data it cites. Additionally, don't discount or overemphasize individual case studies with sweeping generalizations.

Pause and Respond

Sometimes challenging conversations take a sour turn despite your best efforts to keep the dialogue civil and constructive. When this happens, pause. Don't respond immediately. Acknowledge that what said bothered you and determine your next steps. You can say how a comment made you feel, ask another clarifying question, or refute the claim with evidence. And if you want to talk to your instructor about the incident, drop by their office hours to discuss further. There are always ways to improve classroom discussion and your experience is valuable for refining this process.

With these guidelines in mind, you shouldn't have to worry about saying the wrong thing, unintentionally offending someone or being contentiously met by others. You can fully participate in challenging classroom discussions and maximize your opportunity for personal and educational growth. Learning to engage in these conversations and communicate well takes time and practice, but it is a skill you will benefit from long after your student years are over. For more advice on navigating the college experience, check out our YouTube channel.