We asked Sherry K. Watt, PhD, professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs and founder of The Being Institute, to share insights from her research on difficult dialogues and strategies to engage participants in dialogue that is meaningful, passionate, and self-awakening.

Sherry and her research team are working on two forthcoming books that focus on sharing research and practice on “ways of being” in difficult dialogues that examine social oppression (racism, sexism, heterosexism) and that inspire thoughtful, humanizing action.           

What Are Some Implications of National Events on Teaching and Learning at Iowa?

People around the world understand the dire need for social change. However, in many diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, people and organizations create plans that place value on documentation rather than action.

Rather than appropriately disrupting a dysfunctional system, the rush toward solutions often leaves institutions with superficial fixes, additional problems, and further disagreement.

We must take a different approach. My research team has been honing such an approach, and we now feel the urgency to share it more widely as a process for addressing the complexities inherent in controversial social issues, especially racism. We call the approach The Theory of Being.

Can You Describe How to Approach Anti-Racism Work Through the Lens of The Theory of Being?

This approach acknowledges three essential ideas:

  1. Racism is an enduring problem.There is no finish line. Addressing racism includes realizing that change must happen in people’s attitudes and behaviors as well as in organizational practices—this will take time, thoughtful strategy, and an engaged process.
  2. Dialogue is difficult and necessary. Dialogue about social change efforts is uncomfortable, personally impactful, and necessary. It helps to be prepared for a wide range of human reactions. We must learn to embrace dissonance and keep the dialogue going. Organizations that sustain full participation of individuals across different identities are more likely to experience meaningful and transformative change in policies and practices.
  3. Missteps should help develop, not derail, our dialogue. In our anti-racism efforts, we need to acknowledge that we are human and flawed, but our missteps should be viewed as an important part of a developmental process. When missteps are made there needs to be accountability, acknowledgement, an authentic apology, open dialogue, and the opportunity to try again.

How Can Instructors Employ Evidence-Based Strategies to Encourage Inclusive Dialogue?

Intentionally prepare for difficult dialogues. Discussion facilitators who are prepared to manage discomfort are more likely to be effective. Instructors can anticipate reactions by inviting students to post a comment or question in a discussion board. This helps instructors see the various facets of the entire issue.

It also is important to spend time preparing students for difficult dialogues, including inviting them to co-create ground rules for discussion. And ask them what happens if things don’t go well.  Pausing a class and asking students to write for 10 minutes can help defuse a situation, but there are many other strategies, too.

It’s hard to imagine teaching a class that isn’t contextualized in the current social and political situation. These issues are going to be on students’ minds. And we need to engage students not just intellectually but emotionally.

Anticipate and acknowledge defensive reactions. Anticipating and identifying defensive reactions helps to continue productive dialogue around difficult topics. An instructor who can recognize a behavior and identify it as a defense can resist the urge to shut down a conversation or “correct” a student. Identifying defensive reactions can also help instructors realize what is meaningful to students.