Hard Conversations: Tools for Talking

My colleague Laura Whitcombe wrote for this blog last spring (The Students: What Keeps Them Going?). Laura is the AP and early college speech teacher at my high school. In this post, she and her students tackle an important speech skill that all of us can use: how to stop someone who makes an offensive remark but, at the same time, keep the conversation going.

Introduction: We have all been there. In a conversation, someone says something that is just plain wrong. We sputter. We choke. We blank out. We don’t know what to say or how to say it. Or we say blurt out something in anger. 

We know staying silent is equal to an agreement. Reacting too strongly shuts down the dialogue and puts up a barrier to any relationship in the future. 

So what do we do? 

We need to have tools to pull out and put to work when we are confronted with statements that are hurtful. Statements that are hurtful to others, our society, or to our own self-worth. 

Many of us have been taught active listening skills in a variety of situations. I learned these reactions as a means to have tough conversations when I volunteered on the suicide hotline at the Crisis Center. Police learn this as part of Verbal Judo and de-escalation techniques. Customer service centers use this on the phone lines. Business schools and leadership courses promote these skills. These are the basis of many conversations with therapists and counselors. Effective parents and lasting marriages can look to clear communication. These work because they build stronger relationships in a conflict.

What are the skills?

  1. Reflect what feelings you hear. 
  2. Paraphrase in your own words. 
  3. Ask open-ended questions.

Example:  

Reflect: You are probably nervous about writing up a lesson to share with all of your peers.

Paraphrase: Sharing your thoughts and writing can make us feel very vulnerable.

Open-ended Question: What do you think the reaction will be from your fellow teachers?

In the past, I have taught these listening skills in speech classes. We used them in skits such as a coach and player, parent and child, or teacher and student. Students write scenes where at first they are not being listened to, and conflicts escalate. Then they flip it and use these skills to show an improved relationship. 

Example

Reflect: You sound upset about not making the varsity team.

Paraphrase: After sweating through tryouts and going to camps this summer you thought you would be chosen.

Open-ended Question: What would happen if you went and talked to the coach?

Recently, we used these skills for job interviews. We want to work for employers who care about us and we can show that interest by listening to employees. Employers want an employee who can listen carefully and care about their peers and customers.

Example

Reflect: You seem to really enjoy your volunteer work.

Paraphrase: Sounds like you had to build lots of organizational skills when you helped out at the Boys and Girls Club.

Open-ended Question: What skills did you use there that you could use here at our store?

After reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Olua, I was inspired to look at what I can do to help students not want to run away from hard conversations. I asked myself, “How can we all dive in with care instead of reacting in anger and name-calling?” Speech class seems like a place where students would be primed to developing these communication skills. We already have a stage and are promoting student voices. Ibram X. Kendi writes in How to Be an Antiracist that “Critiquing racism is not activism. Changing minds is not activism. An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change.” To me, that means that we must do something, not just think about it. 

So this leads to using active listening skills to confront “microaggressions.” I found a list of microaggressions heard in the classroom, but next time I hope to be brave enough to ask for examples from students. If students can submit comments that they wish that they had confronted, this would be even more of a real world activity. This could be done anonymously to promote students really opening up. 

We used the “I do. We do. They do” classroom format. First a demonstration from me. The document “Microaggressions in the Classroom” by Joel Portman and Javier Ogaz includes a list of recognizable statements. I chose one that really triggers me: “We have to be careful not to invite less qualified women just to have enough female speakers. That’s not fair to the men”

Example

Reflect: “You sound worried about upsetting the men.”

Paraphrase: “So you think most women do not have the qualifications required.”

Open-Ended Question: “What would be the worst that could happen if more women were selected to present?”

Here is a good place to include “Call-In Conversations” from Seed The Way: Education for Justice and Equity’s lesson “Interrupting Bias: Calling Out vs. Calling In” lesson. Several of these “Call-In” sentences smoothly fit into active listening. 

  • I don’t find that funny. Tell me why that’s funny to you.
  • I wonder if you’ve considered the impact of your words. 
  • It sounded like you just said _______. Is that really what you meant? 
  • It sounds like you’re making some assumptions that we need to unpack a bit. 

Another statement we used to incite our responses assumed that all African-Americans come from poverty and know the “Ghetto.” “Mr. Summers! We just read about poverty among Blacks in America. Does this fit your experience and can you tell us about it?”

Students, working in groups, came up with the following reactions.

Reflect

Group 1That sounds a little bit racist.  Sounds like you are stereotyping.

Group 2 That use of “ghetto” sounds like an offensive term. That word has a stigma.

Paraphrase

Group 1What I hear you saying is that you may not be up to date. What I hear you saying is that you do not have reliable sources of information. 

Group 2What I’m hearing is that, just because of my race, you assume that I fit those stereotypes because of what you’ve seen and heard in the media. It sounds like you think I know about poverty because I am black. 

Open-Ended Question

Group 1What sources of information are you using? What do you already know about poverty among Blacks in America? Where did you get your information?

Group 2 –  What information leads you to think that way? What makes you think I have experience with the ghetto? 

Because it is fall of 2020, we are virtual and made use of Google Meet breakout rooms for groups. During the discussion, groups took the sentence starters given and made the sentences their own. The conversations as they worked from their initial reactions were rough.

At first, they wanted to call out the person, “You are racist!” “Stereotyping!” But pushing students to see themselves in a position of leadership helped them to see the importance of not shutting down the conversation. 

I kept asking, “What would happen if you said that?” A fight. An argument. Walking out. Relationship over. No chance to explain. No chance to help change the world. And they do want to change the world. They want to change their world and the bigger world, too. 

We plan to implement these skills in a Panel Discussion project as students discuss controversial issues like taking down monuments, gender discrimination, and how to tackle poverty. The last step is to have students create bookmarks or wallet cards that they can refer to as they make these tools part of their own instinctual communication language. Because these skills have to be practiced. We all need to refresh these skills to make sure that they are in the front of our minds. 

Before the class was even over, a senior student sent me this email thanking me for this lesson: “I am a minority so I experience microaggressions, and usually I am at a loss for words. But now I know how to respond to them!”

Hopefully, this lesson plants a seed. Hopefully, these students can remember these tools and make them part of their everyday lives to help fight for what they believe, but in a more civil and engaging way that will build stronger relationships instead of putting up walls.

2 thoughts on “Hard Conversations: Tools for Talking

  1. Thank you for sharing this, I was wondering what your bookmarks and wallet cards looked like? I am a HS Social Worker and not in a classroom but would love to be able to share something like this with my staff.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s