Free Speech & Advocacy

Managing Hot Topics

Managing Conflict In and Out of the Classroom

University classrooms are, ideally, spaces where we challenge and encourage each other to expand our thinking.

Why, then, is it so hard to navigate “hot” issues?

Our perceptions are in conflict with another person’s.

Our perceptions are shaped by our life experiences. If we are not able to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, conflict about “the truth” or “reality” may arise.

We misinterpret the intentions of another person without confirming them.

When someone says or does something that feels offensive, we may assume that the other person intended to hurt us. Your anger/frustration/confusion is valid, but jumping to conclusions about the other person’s intentions might derail the conversation.

Our feelings are invalidated.

Feelings are neither “right” nor “wrong,” but when we are in the midst of a conflict, we often want to convince the other party why they should or should not feel a certain way. Conversations often shut down when people’s feelings are invalidated.

Our urge to blame interferes with our ability to listen.

It is natural to want to identify the “bad guy” when a conflict erupts. Unfortunately, focusing on blame distracts us from listening and understanding each other. It also limits our ability to understand the complexity of many conflicts.

What are the thoughts that may bubble up during a “hot” conversation?

  • I’m not safe here.
  • My opinion doesn’t matter.
  • I’m being attacked.
  • People don’t take me seriously.
  • I have no allies in this conversation. 

What are some of the feelings?

  • I feel furious.
  • I feel rejected.
  • I feel scared.
  • I feel alone.

How to Facilitate Dialogue

Acknowledge the conflict.

  • “I’m noticing that people are angry. Let’s set some ground rules for how we want to talk to each other.”
  • “This discussion is important. Sounds like we need to change the focus of our plan for today.” OR
  • “This discussion is important, but I’m aware that we have a lot to cover before the exam. Let’s table this conversation until next week.”

Listen authentically.

  • “I’m curious about your point of view. Tell me more.”
  • “Help me understand where you’re coming from.”
  • “It sounds like you disagree with that person because…[paraphrase for clarity].”

Validate feelings.

  • “I can sense that this topic is really emotional, even distressing for you.”
  • “I can tell that you felt dismissed by that comment.”
  • “It sounds like you both feel strongly about this.”

Use “I” statements in order to avoid blaming.

  • “I am not sure I understand” vs. “You are just rambling.”
  • “I feel attacked right now. I need a minute to regroup.”

Offer time/space to continue the conversation in a more private setting.

  • “I can sense that people still need to talk. I can continue this conversation in my office after class, if that would help.”
  • “I know these conversations can bring up a lot of emotions for some of you. If you need some support, I’ll be in my office from [state a specific time you’re available].”


“Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most"


Chico State Counseling & Wellness Center

Handling Controversial Topics in Discussion

Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom

Resources for Promoting Dialogue Post-Election 2016

L.E.A.R.N. to Resolve Conflict in the Classroom

Listen to what your students are saying.

Empathize with their position, especially when it is difficult.

Assess what to do. Take a minute to compose yourself.

Respond directly, redirect the conversation, or end it.

Negotiate how to move forward.

More about contentious classroom management...

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