When hot moments ignite in the classroom, it is important to engage thoughtfully and purposively in strategies that maintain a supportive communication climate. Managing hot moments is a complex endeavor, and it is our responsibility to maintain a climate that is conducive to learning by not adding fuel to the fire.
How to intervene when someone makes a blatantly inappropriate remark (adapted from Obear, 2010):
Ask clarifying questions to help you understand intentions.
- “I want to make sure I heard you correctly. Did you say . . .”
- If they disagree with your paraphrase, you could end the conversation. If you suspect they are trying to “cover their tracks,” you may consider making a statement about the initial comment.
- “I’m glad to hear I misunderstood you, because, as you know, such comments can be . . .”
If they agree with your paraphrase, explore their intent behind making the comment.
- “Can you tell me what you were you hoping to communicate with that comment?”
- “Can you please help me understand what you meant by that?”
Explore the impact of the comment.
- “As you know, everything speaks. What message do you think such a comment sends?”
- “What impact do you think that comment could have on . . .”
- “What do you think people think when they hear that type of comment?”
Share your perspective on the probable impact of comments of this nature.
- “Many people might take that comment to mean . . .”
- “When I hear your comment I think/feel . . .”
- “That comment can perpetuate negative stereotypes and assumptions about . . .”
- “Such negative comments can cause division and defensiveness. I would like to think that is not your intent.”
Ask them to rethink position or change behavior.
- “I encourage you to revisit your view on X as we discuss these issues more in class.”
- “I’d appreciate it if you’d choose a different way to state that because . . .”
- “Our class is a learning community, and such comments make it difficult for us to focus on learning because people feel offended. So I am going to ask you to please refrain from such comments in the future. Could you do that for me please?”
If personally triggered:
- If appropriate, use self-disclosure to name why triggered.
- Share feelings and test to see if some students are feeling triggered as well.
- Move into deeper dialogue by asking the participant questions to gain further understanding or open up the dialogue to the rest of the group by inviting them to respond to the participant's comment. (See suggestions above.)
If a student acts hostile toward you:
- Ask yourself if you've done anything to contribute to the hostility.
- Try not to take attacks personally or become defensive.
- Try to find common ground (“I know we both care deeply about . . .”) without changing the nature of the issue.
- Focus on your interest in learning (yours and your students').
- Use "I" statements to address the concern, which allows you to own the problem and gives the student an easy opportunity to save face.
If the situation escalates:
How to debrief after a hot moment or difficult dialogue using the Four F Debrief Framework: Facts, Findings, Feelings, Future.
- Remain calm and request compliance from the student in concrete terms (e.g., "please lower your voice" or "please sit in your chair").
- Acknowledge the emotions of the student ("I understand you are upset").
- Seek to regain control of the academic setting yet not disgrace anyone in front of their peers.
- Convey your interest and concern to the student. Take a nondefensive stance to try to understand where the student is coming from.
- If the student refuses to comply, remind student of ground rules and student code of conduct.
- If the student continues to refuse to comply, leave the academic setting to call for assistance or ask someone else to enlist the help of others. Be specific regarding whom you want called or contacted.
- If a student is violent or threatening, remove yourself and instruct others to remove themselves from the situation and summon campus police as quickly as possible.
- Have a safety plan in case of violent or dangerous behavior. The plan may include dismissing class or contacting campus police.
- Don’t take students' behavior personally. Understand that they are coming into the classroom with their own personal history and issues.
- Contact the dean of students.
- Document disruptive behavior. Include name of student, date and time of incident, describe incident in behavioral terms, and use quotes where possible.
- What happened in our discussion today? (facts)
- What was hard about our discussion today? (findings)
- What was good about our discussion today? (findings)
- What feelings emerged for you and why? (feelings)
- What did you learn about yourself or others in our discussion today? (findings/future)
- How can you use what was learned today in the future? (future)
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Obear, K. (2010). How to facilitate triggering situations.
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Rosenberg, M. (2003). Nonviolent communication: A language of life.
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Souza, T. J. (2016). Managing hot moments in the classroom: Concrete strategies for cooling down tension. In Faculty Focus special report: Diversity and inclusion in the college classroom
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Souza, T., Vizenor, N., Sherlip, D., & Raser, L. (in press) Transforming conflict in the classroom: Best practices for facilitating difficult dialogues and creating an inclusive communication climate. In P. M. Kellett & T. G. Matyok (Eds.), Transforming conflict through communication: Personal to working relationships.
Souza, T. J., Dallimore, E, Pilling, B., & Aoki, E. (2010). Communication climate, comfort, and cold-calling: An analysis of discussion-based courses at multiple universities. In L. B. Nilson & J. E. Miller (Eds.), To improve the academy,
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Tasha Souza, PhD, is the associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and a professor of communication at Boise State University.
Adapted from the Magna Online Seminar titled How to Create a Transformative Learning Experience for Students by Managing Hot Moments and Difficult Discussions in the Classroom.