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Free Speech & Advocacy

Managing Contentious Group Discussions

The L.E.A.R.N. Approach

Contentious group discussions can be difficult for everyone involved. Participants are often balancing the roles of moderator, peacemaker, and arbiter. 

Listen to what people are saying.

Listening can be hard, especially if someone is saying something with which you strongly disagree. However, it is a precondition to everything that should come next. Listening allows us to understand, find meaning and agreement, and opens the possibility of reaching a better solution.

In the same way that you want your group to listen to you, be open to being challenged by your group. If you make a mistake, apologize. Learn from it.

Unsure how to get started? Watch this short informative video about active listening.

Empathize with their position, especially when it is difficult.

In the contemporary political environment this is often the missing piece. In the moment of a contentious group discussion it can be difficult to fully grasp why people feel the way they do, but making an effort is important. Try to consider why people feel the way they do rather than just focusing on what was said, but do so without casting judgment.

Assume the best of others. If a person says something alarming or seemingly out of place, ask about it. Listen for the subtext; sometimes the most important thing is under what is said. Or, offer a tentative interpretation about the student’s feelings and intentions.

Question in a manner that requests more information or attempts to clear up confusions. This part of the process can also be taken off-line outside of the group discussion afterwards. Empathy is a powerful teaching tool.

Assess what to do. Take a minute compose yourself.

We have been conditioned to respond immediately and avoid silence, but you need to fight the impulse to act immediately.

If things get heated, take a time out. Spend five minutes writing about what you feel. Then resume the conversation. This can be awkward, but it is okay to tell the group everyone should take a moment to process what was said and consider how to move forward. This tactic will be helpful and gives you a minute to compose yourself.

Your solution does not have to be perfect, but taking a minute will make it better.

Respond directly, redirect the conversation, or end it.

There is no one path forward from a difficult classroom conversation. Instead of having a go-to tactic, try being aware of the options at your disposal in a contentious group discussion.

  • You can respond directly and engage the topic at hand. This is a great option if you feel well equipped for the conversation and you feel the conversation can be productive for the group.

  • You can redirect the flow of the group, frequently toward the usual group content. This is a good tactic if you feel a conversation is headed in an unproductive direction and it does not shut you off from following up later at the next group meetup.

  • The last resort in a contentious group discussion is to end the meetup early. This should only be reserved for situations where the rest of group discussion will be unproductive and/or people feel like they might be at risk. If you end the meetup, you should follow up with anyone who may feel isolated and with an explanation to the group.

Negotiate how to move forward.

You have so many options as you consider what should happen next.

You can seek advice from your peers or faculty or staff. You can communicate through email or in person to start the next group meeting. You can follow up with individuals or groups from the larger group. Writing down what happened for your own purposes is a useful exercise regardless as you can make a note of details you may not remember later.

The most important thing you can do is seek advice. You may be shaken up following a contentious group discussion and getting guidance from someone with a clear head and a different perspective is the best thing you can do for yourself.