How to be comfortable with uncomfortable conversations

Ruth Woodfield outlines steps that academics, students and university staff can take to support and work through the discomfort of difficult discussions

Ruth Woodfield 's avatar
University of St Andrews
18 Nov 2021
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Cancel culture, difficult conversations

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It is not uncommon for university staff and students to report experiencing discomfort within both formal teaching and learning sessions and informal conversations. Mostly, feeling stretched and discomforted when rising to the challenge of intellectual pursuits is accepted. What is reported as “new” is a feeling of discomfort in relation to the social and political sensitivity of certain topics.

Discomfort is experienced as feeling you don’t “know” enough to contribute to discussions about sensitive topics, that your viewpoint will not be welcome, or that your contribution might signal ignorance or, worse still, risk offence.

It would be a mistake to assume that only those who have historically felt the most privileged, and the least open to challenge, are those who are now most discomforted and, further, to conclude that this is acceptable. A range of academic colleagues have discussed taking early retirement to avoid the overly choppy waters of, for example, discussions of sex and gender.

A cursory glance at how this conversation is unfolding makes it clear that few solid positions of comfort are available. Those who have spent careers occupying the position of “left wing” challenger can find themselves called out as conservative and offensive. Students who wish to challenge orthodoxy, which students are wont to do, report sometimes holding back for fear of being deemed offensive.

Ignoring discomfort has its own costs

The impact of avoiding uncomfortable conversations is not trivial. Failing to maintain the overall university space as one that can hear and tolerate most voices means we stifle a central purpose of higher education. It is not simply debate in terms of knowledge and major societal shifts such as Black Lives Matter and transgender rights, but also the characteristics of higher education institutions themselves – for instance, the gender pay gap and impacts of social class on students’ life chances. These topics can all cause discomfort in open discussion, yet not discussing them will all but guarantee disengagement and a lack of progress on social justice agendas. 

The trouble with silence is that we do not know what, if anything, we are missing. We know that groups of diverse people do a better job across a range of decision-making tasks than do more homogeneous teams. For instance, in terms of predicting future outcomes they can do better than groups of highly trained, professional analysts. Key character traits of so-called super forecasters include being open-minded, reflective, resilient, humble and non-deterministic. Diversity of voices matters.

We need people to feel comfortable with relative discomfort. There are steps we can take to support this.

Dialogue rather than monologue

Presenting is often the go-to mode of communicating knowledge and ideas. Encourage staff and students to consider debate as the default approach.

Encouraging staff to contribute to debates, rather than simply “giving a paper”, can increase discussion and comfort with challenge. This might not be as easy as it sounds. As a one-time organiser of public round-table debates, which included speakers with deliberately contrasting viewpoints, I witnessed high levels of discomfort from participating academics and record numbers of late cancellations. Yet those who embraced the experience found it rewarding.

Ask students to adopt a position they do not agree with in such exercises. This can be a powerful way of ensuring they explore the logic of such viewpoints.

Disrupt the in-group

We gravitate towards individuals who are most like us and feel most comfortable in our “in-group” and identify least with our various “out-groups”. Contact theory suggests, however, that breaking out of our comfort zones, and contacting out-group members, leads to more understanding and tolerance. Where possible, steer students away from self-selected workgroups and into groups outside their comfort zone of like-minded peers. Provide events where diverse groups of staff can exchange views.

Stage ‘how to have difficult conversations’

Provide platforms for discussing current levels of discomfort with difficult conversations. These acknowledge it is a common experience and destigmatise discomfort. Events can be small and safe spaces for groups to openly discuss specific issues, or institution-level events with invited speakers.

Be reflective

Ensure that teaching and staff development sessions allow space for reflection on our own beliefs and values. Reflecting on the role played by power and privilege in our own viewpoints and history can be key to building tolerance, but also personal resilience.

Inform and invite the whole community

University communities are made up not just of academic staff and students but of professional service staff and, increasingly, external stakeholders and local communities. This brings a further diversity of viewpoints that might be introduced through a range of situations, including public engagement events, knowledge exchange and impact events or feedback and complaints procedures. Provide relevant resources to scaffold those discussions (such as glossaries, to ensure all are equipped with the language to contribute). Share as much information as possible – for example, about institutional inequalities. Ensure everyone is clear as to what constitutes “offence” in terms of legal and policy frameworks, but otherwise, encourage open discussion.

The risks associated with causing offence are not new to academia. In St Andrews, Patrick Hamilton was burned at the stake in the 16th century for expressing beliefs identified as heretical. Causing offence is unlikely to lead to the same fate now, but the consequences can nevertheless be significant.

Discomfort can be positive, and comfort can signal complacency. At a time when the diversity of voices in higher education is expanding, we can take practical steps to ensure everyone feels more comfortable with discomfort.

Ruth Woodfield is professor of equalities and organisation in the School of Management at the University of St Andrews.

She was shortlisted for Outstanding Contribution to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the THE Awards 2021. A full list of shortlisted candidates can be found here.

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