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.
1. 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.
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.
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.