6 Engaging in difficult classroom conversations

Part of the process of supporting student intercultural development is creating space for students to engage in difficult conversations, where they must wrestle with multiple perspectives.  This requires supporting students in navigating complexity, maintaining a clear sense of self-identity while respectfully engaging with others.  Clancy and Bauer (2018) highlight that students may hesitate to share “risky” information in class, expressing discomfort rather than action when they observe.

Supporting difficult conversations requires a complex set of interrelated skills.  These include:

  • Creating a classroom climate that supports relationship and respectful interaction.
  • Sequencing challenging dialogues from simpler to more complex.
  • Modelling tolerance for ambiguity.
  • Supporting students who have experienced trauma, and
  • Recognizing and managing the emotional work involved in the process.

Creating a classroom climate that supports productive discomfort

Lee et al., (2017) describe the process of helping students through challenging and complex intercultural conversations as facilitating productive discomfort. Following Mezirow (1997), they highlight that the type of transformative learning that can create shifts in frames of reference and worldview requires passing through a stage of discomfort, wrestling through new information that does not fit the old frames of reference. In this stage of discomfort, with thoughtful reflection and application, new understandings can develop, resulting in shifted frames of reference and new possibilities for understanding and behaviour. Key goals of classroom dialogue through productive discomfort are supporting students in identifying inequities, recognizing their position and privilege within systems, and advocating for change (Clancey and Bauer, 2018).

When working through learning that requires productive discomfort, it is helpful to consider processes that scaffold and support students as they grow into greater cognitive complexity and emotional demands. Setting the stage for productive discomfort includes creating a classroom community that fosters healthy discussion and thoughtfully sequencing difficult conversations in a progression from lower risk to higher risk.

Steps to create a classroom climate that supports productive discomfort include:

  • Providing opportunities for students to consider and re-consider over time how personal lived experiences shape perspectives on complex topics (Lee et al., 2014).
  • Providing low-stakes opportunities for students to interact across cultures consistently throughout the course.
  • Giving opportunities for students to reflect on what they understand to be important in respecting others and feeling respected.
  • Allowing time for students to co-create guidelines for classroom interaction.
  • Making space for individual reflection on challenging topics before moving into discussion.
  • Remaining open for students to continue to engage with topics at a different time as needed (Lee et al., 2017).
  • Creating prompts that draw students into active listening and engaged dialogue (e.g., how are you inviting others to participate? How are you making space for others to speak?) (Clancey & Bauer, 2018).

Sequencing challenging dialogues

In addition to providing an environment that supports difficult conversations, attention to sequencing these interactions according to the level of complexity and difficulty can help students build up the cognitive and affective skills needed for productive engagement. Adams et al. (1997) suggest sequencing difficult conversations along four key dimensions:

  1. From low risk to a higher risk: Throughout the course, students move from low-stakes interactions (icebreakers and “getting to know you conversations”) towards conversations that may require them to disclose information about identities, emotions, or personal beliefs. Another dimensions of the low risk/high risk continuum is considering group size. Conversations with one peer or a small group will be lower risk than large group discussions on complex topics.
  2. From concrete to abstract: This dimension moves from personal experience towards broader social implications.  At the concrete end of the dimension, students may focus on their own experiences of challenge, inequity, and oppression.  As conversations become more complex, students may engage with large systemic issues and processes.
  3. From difference to justice: This dimension begins with a basic understanding of respect for difference.  As the conversations deepen, they begin to shift from a less politicized understanding of difference, towards an understanding of the way that differences have been used to create unequal systems. These deeper conversations include discussions of power dynamics, privilege, and structures that maintain inequity.
  4. What? So What? Now What?:  In this dimension, conversations begin with students’ existing knowledge.  The next step includes deeper understanding of the potential implications of their current knowledge, deepening existing perspectives. Finally, the conversation shifts towards implications for action — now that we know, what will we do?

Similarly, Clancey and Bauer (2018) suggest empathic scaffolding classroom dialogue, particularly for students with limited experience engaging with intercultural and social justice issues. Empathic scaffolding begins by focusing on students’ own lived experiences and perspectives, drawing them systematically outward into recognizing social implications and demonstrating greater concern for others.

Modelling tolerance for ambiguity

Managing situations that have unknowns and unclear solutions is a part of intercultural development, one that can cause both cognitive and emotional uncertainty for students.  Ambiguity tolerance is the ability to move ahead without full certainty or clarity about all aspects of a situation.  Ambiguity tolerance falls on a spectrum, and people range from low to high in their tolerance of ambiguity.  Individuals with low ambiguity tolerance typically prefer clear direction when moving ahead, and may find it more difficult to function without rules or guidelines.  Those with higher ambiguity tolerance move ahead more easily without seeing the full picture.

Chickering’s theory of student development proposes developing integrity as a dimension of student growth during their undergraduate education. Chickering proposes that students move from a position of black and white thinking to more flexible understanding of multiple perspectives; this developmental phase is generally not fully completed until the later years of undergraduate studies. Similarly, Kohlberg’s theory of moral development states that many young adults possess dualistic moral systems, before moving towards a greater recognition that situations can be ambiguous (Long, 2012). Developing the ambiguity tolerance that supports intercultural fluency is part of a greater process of development as students’ ability to respond to complexity increases.  Instructors can support this process by including problems without single clear solutions to class activities.
The ways in which people manage ambiguity also display variation according to value dimensions that form based on different lived experiences. Those with a higher ambiguity tolerance tend to be comfortable working in situations where some aspects are flexible, unclear, or unknown.  Those with lower ambiguity tolerance may have a higher focus on staying within established rules and social systems (Hoefstede, 2001). Facilitating productive discomfort includes supporting students in recognizing their current orientation towards ambiguity, as well as providing learning opportunities that extend their ambiguity tolerance threshold.  Learning opportunities that extend ambiguity tolerance include case studies with multiple possible solutions, and experiential learning activities that involve adaptation to new types of social interactions (Dimitrov & Haque, 2016).

Incorporating trauma-informed perspectives

While recognizing that intercultural development requires students to risk discomfort, this is balanced by the need to ensure that classroom environments are supportive for students who have experienced trauma. Trauma exposure affects a significant number of university students. A US study found that 66% of incoming students reported exposure to a significant traumatic event, while 9% met the criteria for PTSD.  Trauma exposure was higher among students from minority cultures (Read et al., 2011).  Past trauma history impacts responses to present stressful events, including the stresses involved in adapting to complex postsecondary learning environments. It is likely that every classroom includes students grappling with the effects of past traumatic events.

What is a trauma-informed classroom?

A trauma informed classroom creates a space that seeks to prevent re-exposure to trauma, without forgoing discussion of challenging academic topics.  Trauma informed classrooms have the following characteristics:

Core Values Questions to guide the development of trauma-informed practices
Safety (physical and emotional) • Are signs and other visual materials welcoming, clear, and legible?
• Are first contacts or introductions welcoming, respectful, and engaging?
Trustworthiness • Do students receive clear explanations and information about tasks and procedures?
• Are specific goals and objectives made clear?
• How does the program handle challenges between role clarity and personal/ professional boundaries?
Choice and control • Is each student informed about the available choices and options?
• Do students get a clear and appropriate message about their rights and
responsibilities? Are there negative consequences for making particular choices? Are these necessary or arbitrary consequences?
• Do students have choices about attending various meetings?
• Do students choose how contact is made (e .g ., by phone or mail to their home or
other address)?
Collaboration • Do educators identify tasks on which they and students can work simultaneously (e .g ., information gathering and committees)?
Empowerment • How are each student’s strengths and skills recognized?
• Do educators communicate a sense of realistic optimism about students’ capacity to achieve their goals?
• How can each class be focused on skill development or

Adapted from: Fallot, R., & Harris, M. (2019). Creating Cultures of Trauma-Informed Care (CCTIC): A Self-Assessment and Planning Protocol Community Connections; Washington, D.C.

Managing emotional labour

The work of guiding students through productive discomfort calls for significant emotional work from educators. Cutri & Whiting (2015) highlight four key aspects of this work for educators to consider. First, educators should prepare for the task of managing our own personal emotional reactions to our students’ learning process. For many educators, because of additional years of experience confronting and working through challenging issues regarding our own complicity with social injustices, we can forget the impact of discomfort and difficulty in our earlier learning. Personal reactions of frustration and impatience can block our ability to guide students through their learning process, unless we are able to maintain our own emotional awareness and process our own emotions.  Second, emotional reactions based on our own lived experiences can arise in classroom discussions, and managing these emotions in the midst of the classroom situation can create tensions with guiding the learning process of students. Third, engaging in productive discomfort with students asks for the emotional work of remaining both open and vulnerable with students, resisting the temptation to retreat into the position of power that content expertise can provide.

Cutri and Whiting acknowledge the demands of this emotional work on educators who commit to facilitating productive discomfort, particularly in intercultural learning spaces. They suggest that while acknowledging this challenge, a key step forward involves engaging in reflection and critique in order to allow the emotional work to create productive growth in ourselves as educators.


Supporting students’ intercultural development in the cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal domains includes incorporating learning activities that challenge students to engage with discomfort, recognizing the nature of inequality and oppression in societal systems and the ways in which these realities interact with their personal identities and experiences. Opportunities to participate in dialogue in a scaffolded and supported classroom context is a key part of students’ intercultural learning that enables them to contribute to positive social change during and after their educational experience.


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