Diving Into the Deep End

3 Techniques to Talk About Tough Topics

Virtually raise your hand if you’re uncomfortable talking about sexuality. If you didn’t raise your virtual hand already, do so now if you know someone else who gets uneasy talking about sexuality. I’ll bet most of you raised your hands. Sex can be a very taboo, scary, or anxiety ridden topic for many people at any age.

Generally speaking, the United States is a very sexualized country with incredibly suppressed attitudes about sexuality (let’s be honest, the institution of education is just about as old as religious institutions, and most American universities were founded on a religious basis). This makes tough topics difficult to approach and often creates barriers for you to break through to get people talking. It’s important to reach the folks you’re educating based on their needs and their demographics. Education isn’t a one size fits all, and tailoring your approach is critical to effective education.

“It’s not easy to get started on any new venture; you have to overcome inertia, build new habits and relationships, disrupt comfortable positions, and ignore the easy escape routes.”
– Difficult Dialogues Handbook

A simple way to begin basing your education style on your participants’ needs is to have a generic approach where you tailor your method of delivery, or the questions that you’re asking. We’re going to dive into 3 generic approaches that you can tailor to your target audiences.

rules1. Create Working Agreements. A lot of people call these “Ground Rules,” and while they’re essentially the same concept, I prefer “Working Agreements” because it implies an egalitarian environment where the participants are agreeing to the rules and not simply adhering to them. The term Working Agreements also implies flexibility and mobility. If you’re talking about a tough topic, someone might realize that they want something else added to the Agreements. If they’re rules, it might be more uncomfortable for someone to revisit them, but if you set the tone for people to revisit the Working Agreements as they see fit, it will create a safer space.

Working Agreements should be created in a collaborative effort with the whole group, and generic agreements should be defined more specifically. For example, if someone adds, “be respectful,” ask what respectful looks like.

Here’s a great guide about Working Agreements, and a a fantastic infographic on how to create Working Agreements, and what to do if they’re broken….

2. Toss Snowballs. If you’re going to talk about a difficult subject and you’re worried that people will feel vulnerable and uncomfortable sharing their experiences publicly, you can have the participants do a snowball. IMG_2340

As I’ve written about before, a snowball is when you give everyone a piece of paper and ask them questions about the topic. One way to do this and save time is to have the paper already printed with the topic questions. Once everyone writes on their sheet of paper, have them crumple it up and toss it to you. After you’ve gotten all of the papers, toss one “snowball” back to each participant. Once everyone has a ball of paper, they will un-crumple it to read out loud. Make sure to note that if any participants receive their own paper back, they should just read it as if it were someone else’s paper. No one will know the difference, I promise.

The purpose of a snowball is to make sure that everyone will have the opportunity to share without outing themselves in some way, or just feeling uncomfortable. It’s also normalizing to participants to hear someone else reading their statement, and oftentimes, there are a few responses that are very similar, normalizing their experience even more. When participants are reading the snowballs they’re engaged because they’re reading someone’s personal experience as if it’s their own, and they’re waiting to hear theirs being read.

Some tough topic questions you can use for a snowball:

  • What’s your opinion on abortion? Have you ever, or would you have an abortion? Where do your beliefs about abortion come from?
  • What’s your first memory of sexual pleasure? How old were you? Were you alone? With someone else? What emotions do these memories incite?

3. Sit in Silence. And I’m not talking about mind reading here. I’m talking about encouraging reflective silence, and letting silence ride. It’s easy for space talkers to deplete the silence and fill it with arbitrary words that dismiss the discomfort, but sometimes sitting in the silence to experience the discomfort is a good thing.In the documentary Last Chance for Eden,  the participants are having a lot of difficult conversations about power, privilege, body image, race, and class. One of the women explains that no one will ever understand her specific experience, and she doesn’t want anyone to empathize and tell her they understand when they don’t. Instead, she asked that people just sit with her in her pain. She asked that they sit with her in her silence.

Silence can be a very powerful way to process difficult topics. It’s important to remember, as Merilee Hamelock and Norm Friesen remind us, that “classroom silences…can be interpreted as both empowerment and disempowerment, as protective and damaging to identity, and of being an expression of compliance and attention, and of disobedience and distraction.” This is why it’s pertinent to talk to participants about why silence can be a good thing, and to discuss the importance of being conscious of the space we take up when difficult conversations are on the table.

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6 responses to “Diving Into the Deep End

  1. Another reason I like the term “working agreements” is because it is not stigmatized in the same way that “ground rules” is. When I say ground rules, I think of the countless days spent in each class going over the mandatory rules of the classroom. These were always meant to keep the kids in-line instead of everyone in-line.

    Also, I would like to point out that Confucius knew what was up. Learning without reflection is definitely a waste and it makes me happy to see that this opinion was held by prominent leaders throughout history. Thanks for the quote and snowball idea! I’m definitely using them.

  2. Justyn, fantastic post! I really like your inclusion of sitting in silence, and it’s similar to group dance/movement therapy work. I’m interested in the use of mimicry not to mock or impersonate, but to empathize with someone by magnifying their physiological experience throughout the group. There’s growing scientific data that the act of conscientiously doing what someone in pain is doing has a way of igniting the parts of our brains associated with empathy. What a great way to apply this technique to the classroom!

  3. As efficiency-focused as I am (moreso, as I would like to think I am), I used to get agitated by the amount of precious time used to create the seemingly same “working agreements” in each and every class. You know the ones- “move up, move back” “assume goodwill” etc. In my head, I thought, “We are all going to say the same things we always do anyways, lets get on with it.” And then I was in a classroom where working agreements were not created. The difference that the lack of agreements made in the cultivation of a classroom environment was astonishing. Whether it was the professor’s (who didn’t set aside the time to develop a classroom culture and rapport) style of facilitation that lead to the difference in class, or the lack of agreements themselves- it changed the setting; students bickered instead of respectfully challenging each other, they didn’t put forth effort to participate, and spent time g-chatting across the room. It was not a learning environment that I thrive in, nor one that I would ever want to create for students I’m teaching. In my experience, the extra time taken to cultivate a safe and trusting classroom, is made up for tenfold by the quality of learning environment and participation that is fostered.

  4. I have never used the “toss snowballs” activity, but as an intrapersonal learner it really speaks to me! I think it is such a great activity for people who might not participate verbally in class, or are reluctant to share. In addition, I think it is a perfect activity for starting discussions on tough topics like abortion or sexual pleasure. While I think that debates and direct conversations can be really helpful for the learning process, being able to anonymously contribute to an activity and have your voice heard/read can be so beneficial to quiet participants. This activity’s anonymity aspect also lends itself to the same appeal of the internet- anonymity. This quality helps learners to be less inhibited and have a chance to participate in the active learning process of class. Thanks for explaining it so well, I would love to incorporate this concepts into my curriculua.

  5. I like your discussion on silence. I don’t think it’s encouraged enough in education. I wonder if some educators worry about the potential discomfort or about “wasting time.” In addition to experiencing discomfort (which can be a learning experience on its own), using silence can help learners who need more processing time, especially when faced with difficult topics. Are there any age groups or scenarios you wouldn’t encourage moments of silence?

  6. It is important to meet students where they are at and I really appreciate these techniques for doing just that. I had never heard of working agreements in place of ground rules before but I definitely prefer it. Working agreements would be beneficial for adult learners who need to take an active role in their education, including the ability to revisit established educational agreements. The difference between “rules” and “agreements” is so important for some learners and I had never considered it before now. Thank you for the reminder of the importance language has in education.

    Thank you so much for including silence and its relevance in education. I need a bit of silence to process what is happening around me and I find that space talkers can distract me from fully immersing myself in educational experiences. Few things aggravate me more than learners who fill silence with arbitrary words. I do understand that silence is not comfortable for all learners and filling this silence helps some learners ease their discomfort. I would like to learn more techniques for helping learners sit in silence if it is not something they are accustomed to.

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