How ‘Dialogue’ Can Create Empathy in a Divided Classroom

Feb 18, 2020

In many classrooms these days, student discussion can grow so heated that passion threatens to overwhelm productive conversation. A harsh debate can leave students (and instructors) feeling upset, or make them discouraged about participating in future conversations.

The potential for hurt feelings, misunderstandings and stifled learning is even greater when classroom debates and campus events tackle hot-button topics like politics, race, religion and gender. And in today’s highly polarized atmosphere, when a comment taken out of context can go viral on social media, the consequences of an out-of-control conversation can be even more severe.

Considering these high stakes, students and instructors may be tempted to avoid tough subjects altogether, or only discuss them with like-minded folks.

But there’s another option. Today on the podcast, we’re learning about “dialogue,” a type of mediated discussion that may help students and educators tackle touchy topics more productively and use conflict as a learning opportunity.

We’ll hear from Kelly Maxwell, assistant dean for undergraduate education in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan, which offers semester-long courses called “intergroup dialogues” on subjects that tend to provoke strong feelings, including class, sexual orientation and racial identity.

Maxwell is also board chair of the Difficult Dialogues National Resources Center, a nonprofit that supports dialogue work in higher education. It’s hosting a conference for university leaders at the end of October at Princeton University.

Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen, or use the player below. Or read the partial transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: How do you define dialogue, as opposed to some other kind of class discussion?

Maxwell: Dialogue is really about greater understanding. So it's bringing people together that have different views on particular issues, social issues often—maybe they have different identity backgrounds—seeking to understand one another in a more nuanced way. Or maybe they've never even talked with someone who has a differing opinion or perspective or experience. And so dialogue really brings those folks together to learn to listen, learn to speak one's truth and feel empowered to be listened to.


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Sometimes, especially if one has a marginalized voice, they've never had an opportunity to actually be listened to. So dialogue is about empowering those voices. It's about listening and building empathy for experiences that may be very different from one's own, and really then seeking to understand where that perspective comes from.

If dialogue is happening in a classroom, of course there's content, but then there's the process of dialogue. So very intentionally bringing people together with some information, with some content, but then also allowing them to share their own experiences vis-a-vis the content. And then opening the thinking around whatever the complex issue is.

Oftentimes, especially younger students come with a very dualistic framework. It's either this or it's this. Dialogue helps uncover the complexity of a variety of issues. There's a lot of emotion in dialogue, too, which is a little bit different than a typical college classroom. So it's connecting the intellectual or the cognitive with that affective emotion, so that people learn that there are real stories behind some of the hot topics of the day.

Does dialogue happen naturally and organically? Or have you found it's something that needs to be taught and practiced to actually occur?

Maxwell: I really believe in the latter, that it really takes intention, and faculty and staff have to find purposeful ways of engaging students in dialogue.

So we talk about all kinds of diversity, equity and inclusion. And just because you have a diverse student body at any given institution doesn't mean that those students are interacting together. And, in fact, we know that not just students, but in society, we tend to hang around and live in neighborhoods that look like us or have very similar backgrounds like us. Our social media feeds often are reinforcing the beliefs that we already have.

And so dialogue has to be intentional to bring people together. You don't just say, "Hey, we're going to have a dialogue about this controversial topic. We hope people from all sides will come. And then we see what happens." That is a recipe for disaster ... where people are just trying to get their side heard and win an argument.

You really have to set up the space, both physically, so that it's welcoming for people, but also space meaning what's going to happen in the room. So setting guidelines or beginning with some kind of norm-setting. How are we going to talk together? How are we going to listen together? Recognizing that in a dialogue setting there probably isn't going to be resolution. The goal is really to hear each other deeply, really listen, and share one's own perspective, and understand your own perspective better through the process. And hopefully build some empathy along the way.

I'd love to hear more about that class in particular. How does it work? Is it for credit? Is there a professor?

Maxwell: It's a for-credit course that brings students together across different identities. So, for example, in a race-and-ethnicity dialogue, there are roughly equal numbers of students of color and white students in the dialogue space. And we train undergraduate peer facilitators to be in the dialogue space as facilitators.

So there is not a faculty member in the classroom every week. They start and end the semester with a faculty member, and then the faculty member will observe. They're really observing the facilitators to coach and supervise them. And we really believe that peer facilitation allows students to ask that question that they really wanted to ask. Or sometimes students don't want to make a mistake in a classroom setting. So the peer leaders help to reinforce that, "It's okay here." That we're creating a space that is student-friendly and very much about the learning of the people in the room.

And so it is across the arc of a full semester. There's four stages to the dialogue process. First is group beginnings. So, instead of digging right into the hot topic of the day, it's really spending the first couple of weeks really getting to know one another, doing something called “sharing testimonials,” where every student in the room tells their story related to the identity of focus in the dialogue.

Then they do some learning through experiential exercises around social identities, discrimination, privilege, power, that kind of thing. And then they really get into the hot topics that they choose, based on the conversations that have been happening so far. And then they really are in the dialogue process. And then finally, [they] wrap up with, "What has this meant for me? Let me reflect on this collectively." What action do we want to take or individually, if any. So it's kind of a wrap-up at the end.

Do dialogue techniques have something to contribute to so-called free speech debates that happen when controversial speakers or protest movements come to campuses?

Maxwell: I think in the moment, when the controversial speakers on campus, [that’s] not really a great time for true dialogue. But I think what can come out of it is to invite people from many perspectives to the table—maybe some that supported the speaker [and] some that opposed the speaker—and then have a dialogue. So we talked about having emotion and dialogue, but I think you want to lower the level from when the controversial speaker is there, when tensions are really high, bring that down a notch. Let a little bit of time pass, and then bring people together to say, "Hey, let's talk about this."

Of course you can also do it on the proactive side, before a speaker is invited. Maybe you're hearing rumblings that somebody wants to start a controversy. Why not bring that group together with one that would really feel marginalized by a speaker, and really let them hear from one another. Why might that be very hurtful? Why might having this speaker be somewhat helpful, at least from the group that believes that to be so. And letting them really talk to one another and hear, and then it could change what ends up happening.

I think that there's some understanding among some people that a call to dialogue can sometimes be associated with this idea of maintaining civility, which may feel like an attempt to silence urgency around political beliefs or lived situations. What do you make of that kind of tension?

Maxwell: For me, dialogue is about democratic engagement because there are voices that have been left out of our public sphere. And so bringing them to the table, the dialogue table, and really having their voices be equal to those that are often louder is really, really important, as far as our democracy.

At the same time, I completely understand the critique about, "Oh, we have to do this in a way that's very respectable." And I even talked about creating guidelines at the beginning. And I know some people believe that creating those guidelines can tamp down, but the point of the guidelines is to build a sense of how we're going to talk together even when controversy happens. So it's not to tamp down the conflict, but it's a way to say, "Okay, how are we going to handle conflict productively when it happens?"

So I think that's a little bit of a difference from what I think of when I think of “civility,” which is, make sure everybody feels okay. It often signals that we don't want to rock the boat. And dialogue really is about rocking the boat because it's about de-centering power or de-centering the dominant narrative, so that those voices that don't get heard actually get heard.

And at the same time, those voices that usually are the prominent ones, they're also there. They also have an opportunity to be heard, but they're heard at the same level, rather than squashing voices that are typically marginalized. And so it's a rebalancing of the voices around the table, so that the power is uncovered or those dominant voices are uncovered and made visible. And that's a really important and different thing than having a civil conversation.

For faculty who are anticipating a couple of potentially very tense semesters before and after the election, what would you encourage they do in their classrooms or on campus to, as you said, be able to dig in, but in a productive way?

Maxwell: It's hard to have a true dialogue in a sort of regular class, but I think you can set up dialogic techniques, using dialogic techniques to get the student group to be as dialogue-ish as possible.

Absolutely [instructors should set] guidelines for discussion in classrooms. So using “I” statements, doing your own best and then expecting that from others as well. And then confidentiality in the space, too. You're not tweeting about what's happening here in our room, but that you take the learning out, but you don't take the stories that people are sharing out of the space.

[And] then that relationship-building. Because how are you going to expect students to talk about controversial issues in your class if they don't even know the name of the person sitting next to them?

I know that can be really tough for faculty members, because they don't want to take the time away from their content for this relationship-building, but it really pays dividends later in the class when students feel like they can give the benefit of the doubt to somebody else because they have some kind of connection with them. So early on, some daily icebreakers that help people get to know people's names, but also a little bit about the people in the room.

And knowing that emotion is going to be present is really crucial. I've done a fair bit of faculty development as well, and I think the greatest fear that I hear from faculty is, what do I do when someone yells, or there's clearly anger and frustration in the room, or someone cries or something like that. Equipping faculty with the skills to manage emotion in the classroom. Because most faculty are not trained in that way and don't know what to do when it happens.


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