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Strategies to Facilitate Dialogue and Challenging Conversations in the Classroom

In the context of increasingly polarized learning environments, facilitating meaningful dialogue in classrooms can be a daunting task. Yet, without facilitated, accountable spaces for collaborative learning, we risk depriving students of critical skill-building opportunities.

The strategies here are offered for educators navigating various educational objectives. Your course learning objectives may directly involve high-stakes social issues, or you may be committed to carving space for critical dialogue as a foundational skill for disciplinary learning. Some may be bracing for the unexpected, knowing that difficult conversations and moments can arise at unpredictable times.

In offering these strategies, we also acknowledge that every interaction happens in context. Both learners and educators face various risks in the classroom which will resonate differently depending on our location within broader institutional and social structures. For educators who hope to engage in classroom dialogue but have concerns about implications not explored here, we encourage you to connect with available resources for further support.

What is Accountable Space?

When approaching dialogue from the framework of accountability (Ahenkorah, 2020) the goal is not to present unfeasible guarantees of safety from discomfort or expectations for bravery that can inequitably impact marginalized people. Instead, the goal is to create a space for critical reflection and dialogue rooted in expectations of personal accountability. This means that all participants are asked to be accountable for our behaviours, contributions and impact, as well as our reactions. 

We know it can be tiring to navigate changing terminology. While the meaning of "safe" or "brave" space will often vary according to context and use, there are also sometimes differences that may go beyond semantics.

Unpacking Safe Space

The term safe space is often used in contexts where challenge is both supported and invited- for example, Holly and Reiner (2005) define a space space as “a classroom climate that allows students to feel secure enough to take risks, honestly express their views, and share and explore their knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors” (p. 50). However, concerns have also been raised that the term may lead to conflating aims of "safety" with "comfort" and may not provide the tools needed to differentiate between destructive and constructive vulnerability (Flensner and Von Der Lippe, 2019) .

The challenge with promising safe space is that it is impossible to ensure complete safety, just as it is impossible to anticipate or prevent every unique personal trigger. This objective may also remove the onus from participants to challenge themselves and to experience productive discomfort.

Unpacking Brave Space

On the other hand, the term "brave space" has been used to describe learning spaces which create "challenging environment that encourages equal participation across representative identities.” where participants are encouraged to speak "honestly and critically from their own experience toward the end of mutual learning" (Holman and Mejia, 2019).

While the concept of a brave space aligns well with principles of collaborative learning and learning through discomfort, it is important that this approach is not adopted without awareness of its implications. While transformative learning does and should involve risk, these risks are often not shared equally. For many members of marginalized and stigmatized communities, the daily act of simply being and engaging in these spaces can in itself require significant effort and bravery. For participants who are already struggling with daily acts of micro or macro aggressions, asking for additional bravery in group dialogue should always be appreciated in context (Ahenkorah, 2020).

Why Accountable Space?

As Elise Ahenkorah (2020) suggests:

Accountability means being responsible for yourself, your intentions, words, and actions. It means entering a space with good intentions, but understanding that aligning your intent with action is the true test of commitment.

When we centre accountability we put the onus on all participants to practice and build the skills necessary to experience productive discomfort, to improve methods of self-regulation and to contribute to constructive forms of friction and conflict. These skills are facilitated by clear and transparent expectations, community agreements and transformative practices for identifying and addressing harm.

How do we Support Accountability in Classroom Dialogue?

  • It's crucial to recognize when you're not adequately prepared to facilitate a discussion on highly charged and complex topics. This could be due to a variety of reasons, whether it's feeling ill-equipped to facilitate the discussion and enforce boundaries, or concerns that the broader environment may not be conducive to meaningful dialogue.
  • Educators may also be hesitant to engage with particular topics due to lack of familiarity with subject-matter. This is an important consideration, as having understanding around the context of a particular conversation will help in developing effective community agreements for dialogue. Using a collaborative learning approach, you can engage your learners’ experiential knowledge in developing these agreements, but your role in maintaining agreements will be key.

  • If you don't feel confident that you can facilitate freeform discussion on a particular issue in a safe and meaningful way, being transparent with your learners can support trust and accountability. In this case, even if a student opens discussion on a topic, you can respond by acknowledging the importance of the issue and clarifying why you have chosen to redirect the conversation (i.e., given the complexity and emotional weight of this topic, I want to be upfront that I don't feel prepared to facilitate a meaningful discussion at this time).

  • Even if you are not currently prepared to facilitate freeform discussion on a particular topic, keep in mind that there are different ways to make space for reflection or collaborative learning, as discussed below.

  • While freeform discussions offer one possibility for classroom dialogue, there are many other ways you can provide space for critical reflection and even dialogue. Consider how other options like silent seminars, circle activities, or other alternatives to freeform discussion might lend themselves to unique collaborative learning opportunities. Creating space for individual reflection (ie, creating journals in eClass or providing students time during class) can also be an important way to encourage critical reflexivity on complex issues.
  • Taking advantage of moderated virtual discussion boards, with clear focus and guidelines, can also be an effective tool for engaging discussion in a manner which may afford learners more time to be reflective in contributions and responses.

  • Use of digital tools, such as Mentimeter, Padlet or polling platforms, can also provide a forum for students to share anonymously, which can help to engage voices you may not hear from otherwise. Since anonymous engagement can sometimes embolden harmful comments, its important to be responsive to these risks and consider setting these activities up with safeguards (ie., moderating responses).
  • Regardless of the forum you've chosen for collaborative learning, it is essential that learners have clear guidelines about what is acceptable and what is not. 

  • The university's Code of Conduct sets a general standard of behaviour in the classroom, but having agreements specific to your own learner community can build a stronger foundation for engagement. While these expectations can be created independently by the instructor, if you can invest space in having learners co-create them, or at minimum give feedback and input, this will deepen a sense of community and foster shared accountability.

  • Before initiating any discussion, outline your specific objective. Is the goal to create facilitated space for students to share and reflect on their emotional responses to a specific event or topic? Are you drawing on a current event as an entry point to other course learning objectives, i.e., to analyze the role of media, the psychological impacts of an event, ethical or legal implications? By setting clear objectives, you help students understand the scope and purpose of the discussion, making it easier for them to stay on topic and engage meaningfully.
  • For high-stakes conversations, be prepared that the discussion may naturally extend into broader historical or contextual issues. If you are prepared to open space for these broader conversations, clarify that the aim is not to reach consensus on all points, but to make space for different perspectives that can enrich understanding of the issue's complexities.

  • If the conversation goes beyond the scope of what you're prepared to discuss or if contextual issues have dominated and are preventing you from meeting your objectives for the conversation, redirect the focus back to the original goals. In this case, acknowledge the significance of broader topics and suggest other avenues for more in-depth exploration (ie., reflective journals, individual assignments or papers, forums outside the classroom).
  • As you determine the purpose and focus of any discussion, remember to take into consideration the lived experiences and potential impact of that discussion on members of your learning community. While certain discussions may be experienced by some as a mostly intellectual exercise, these discussions can be draining and potentially even traumatic for others (Ferguson, Ge and Schwartz, 2023). As explored in University of Michigan's resources on Trauma-informed Pedagogy (n.d) being aware of potential impacts is key as you determine the appropriate approach, boundaries and options for engagement in each discussion.

  • If you know in advance that you will be creating space in your classroom for a conversation that is likely to be charged, notifying students beforehand (via email or posting an announcement on eClass) can give helpful time to identify and address potential barriers to engagement.

  • As an educator, you can help provide an environment condusive to engagement by being receptive and responsive to concerns raised by learners, and adapting accordingly. From an accountable space approach, you can also encourage learners to reflect on strategies they can use independently to address challenges. Providing and discussing resources in advance–for example, to help learners reflect on personal triggers or differentiate between uncomfortable and unsafe moments, can help foster mutual accountability in the collaborative learning process.

  • Stop and acknowledge: As soon as you notice a boundary has been crossed or harmful statements have been made, pause the discussion (i.e., "I just want to pause here. It sounds like you're making some assumptions that could be dangerous”). Ignoring the issue can exacerbate harm and erode trust. See more examples from Hasslam (2019) of how both "calling out" (when we need to hit the "pause" button to let a participant know that their words or actions are unacceptable) and "calling in" (shifting from reaction to critical reflection) can be used to interrupt bias and create space for transformative learning.

  • Address and revisit guidelines: Use the opportunity to revisit the agreed guidelines and adapt if needed 

  • Check-in with affected individuals: If someone appears to be directly affected, check in with them privately, either during or after the discussion, to assess how they are feeling and what support or action may be needed.

  • Address harm: It is critical to address when harm has occurred, and how you address incidents of harm will shape your classroom dynamic moving forward. Consider how each of the frameworks seen in the table below (reproduced from TMU's Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, 2023 p.4) align with your own pedagogy.

Punitive Frameworks Restorative FrameworksTransformative Frameworks

Rely on punishment to maintain order


Do not seek consent

Do not increase self-control

Do not foster reflection, growth, or change in behaviour

Harmful to mental, emotional, and social development
Seek to restore things to the way they were before harm was done

Aims to mitigate the impact of our actions

Something that happens with the person who caused harm rather than to them

All parties must consent

Does not resolve underlying cause of actions

Seek to transform our situations in response to harm

Aim to understand and address the underlying issues, struggles, and power imbalance


Rely on a culture that is flexible, responsive, and has a strong set of values and community agreements
'Punitive, Restorative, and Transformative Frameworks for Classroom Management'. Reproduced with permission from Best Practices in Managing Difficult Conversations from Toronto Metropolitan University (p.4) as an adaptation of content from Lessons in Liberation: An Abolitionist Toolkit for Educators (p.65).

  • It’s critical to acknowledge if you come to a point in dialogue where you are no longer able to effectively facilitate or enforce agreed community norms. For example, if the focus of the conversation has derailed into personal attacks, harmful statements or unproductive debate, it is likely time to pause, close or shift the discussion to another format or platform.
  • Particularly after highly-charged moments or conversations it is critical to get feedback from your learners about how they experienced the process- did they feel encouraged and safe to engage? Did they find the conversation productive? Do they have suggestions or requests for future discussions?

  • Soliciting and responding to this feedback can help to inform how you approach and plan for ongoing dialogue and collaborative learning.
  • While acknowledging and navigating difficult moments or conversations inside the classroom, it is important to also be mindful of the challenges students are experiencing outside of the classroom, particularly in times of local or international crisis.

  • Faculty may be able to help address these challenges by offering various supports or options. For example; flexibility with deadlines, asynchronous or virtual options for engagement, recorded lectures, and sharing resources for students who are struggling.

Works Cited

Ahenkora, E. (2020). Safe and Brave Spaces Don’t Work (and What You Can Do Instead). Medium.

Ferguson, Ge and Schwartz (2023). Managing Difficult Conversations in the Classroom. Toronto Metropolitan University, Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

Haslam, R.E. (2019). Interrupting Bias: Calling Out vs. Calling In. Seed the Way LLC.

Holman, F., & Mejía, E. (2019). Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces and Why We Gon’ Be Alright — City Bureau. City Bureau.

Creating Discussion Guidelines. (n.d.). UC Berkeley Graduate Student Instructor Teaching & Resource Center. Retrieved October 16, 2023, from


Creating Discussion Guidelines. (n.d.). UC Berkeley Graduate Student Instructor Teaching & Resource Center. Retrieved October 16, 2023, from

Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center. (2020). Strategies for challenges in dialogue facilitation.

Getting Started with Establishing Ground Rules: Center for Teaching Innovation. (n.d.). Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. Retrieved October 16, 2023, from

Howard, Jay. (2019) “How to Hold a Better Class Discussion.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. [Excerpts]

Inclusive Teaching Forum: Discussion Guidelines. (n.d.). Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved October 16, 2023, from

Merculieff, I. & Roderick, L. (2013). Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning and Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education. Anchorage, AK: University of Alaska Anchorage.  

Singleton, G. & Linton, C. (2006). Courageous Conversations About Race: A field guide for achieving equity in schools. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press Inc. Adapted by Angela Brown, VSB Anti-racism & Diversity Consultant

University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning & Teaching. (n.d.). Responding to difficult moments.

University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning & Teaching. (n.d.) Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-Stakes Topics:

University of Chicago Center for Teaching. Worksheet for Facilitating Difficult Conversations: