How one teacher prepares her students for difficult conversations

Disagreement may be habit-forming.

Believing your opinion is right, or that your cause is righteous, is reassuring. It adds certainty to an uncertain time.

Like all good things, however, it can become destructive when taken to extremes. Feeling overly right, righteous, certain, or safe (read: willfully ignorant) blinds you to the nuance and ambiguity that characterize so many of today’s societal issues.

Jason Jay and Gabriel Grant call these feelings “traps” or “pitfalls.” Identifying and overcoming these pitfalls is key to their workshop-turned-workbook, Breaking Through Gridlock. This curriculum has the power to transform shouting matches into sincere conversations about contentious issues.

Sara Soderstrom, assistant professor at the University of Michigan, took what she learned from Breaking Through Gridlock and brought it back to her classroom. Soderstrom uses this curriculum to help her students better connect with friends, family, and future bosses.



Poll Everywhere: Breaking Through Gridlock asks participants to be open and vulnerable about their shortcomings. How have you adapted this curriculum for the classroom?

Sara Soderstrom: [ Breaking Through Gridlock ] pushes a level of vulnerability for both myself and my students further than anything else I’ve taught.

The first time I taught this, it made me very nervous. I was being very open about traps I’d fallen into and challenges I’d faced. Then, I was asking students to do the same thing, to share more personal insights with me and the class than would normally happen in a business or organizational course. I mean, we’re not talking about profitability here.

If I expect students to be vulnerable with me, than I need to model that behavior for them. Some students are going to grab on and wrestle with this material. I want them to see that I have struggled with it as well – and am still struggling with it. They can talk to me. I’m not tackling this from some abstract, theoretical space. It’s something I am committed to engaging with.


PE: What sorts of assignments or exercises do you do in your classes?

SS: I use the curriculum to build a series of assignments and exercises that help students engage in challenging conversations.

The course is cross-listed between two different programs: organizational study and the environment. I get students who care about sustainability issues across environmental and societal spectrum and who want careers engaging in this space, as well as some who are reflecting on how they live their lives.

First, I ask them to think about a time when they either had a rough conversation or avoided a conversation. These conversations tend to be with someone important to the student, such as a parent or sibling. With undergraduates, I tend to get more conversation avoidance. There’s this perception that it will go really poorly, or become contentious, and therefore they just don’t talk about it.

Next, about a quarter of the way through the semester, we do an hour-and-a-half workshop in class that’s similar to what Gabriel and Jason do. Students reflect on some of the traps they’ve fallen into, times they felt uncomfortable engaging in a conversation, and how they might navigate a difficult conversation. Then I assign them to actually have a conversation. This is either with someone they’ve tried to engage in the past, or avoided engaging. About five or six weeks later, they reflect on this conversation in a paper, and we discuss conversation traps together in class.


“If we cannot hear from lots of different people with different perspectives and experiences, then our ability to innovate and solves these challenges is limited.”


PE: How do your students feel about these assignments?

SS: Because students are talking about people they care about so deeply, they’re often not comfortable discussing their conversations with the class. I’ve found they’re more comfortable referencing the conversation with a small group. So, we break into groups and each one finds a video clip, cartoon, or other example that reflects a trap they felt or experienced, which they share with the class.

Discussing these examples helps normalize what students are experiencing. It shows them that they’re not alone, or that these issues are not unique to their friends or family. It creates a more open space for sharing and reflecting on each other’s experiences, instead of feeling embarrassed or concerned.


PE: When your students open up about themselves, how does that make you feel?

SS: I think this is where I’m most influenced by the fact that I’m a parent of three. For so many of my students, sustainability is a core part of their value system. Often they feel this is out of alignment with a family member who is a key relationship to them.

Then they realize through these conversations that there’s almost always respect and caring and love and even a lot more agreement on these issues than they expected. And those are the papers that, when I read them, I have to say to myself, ‘Okay, I’m not going to start crying while I’m grading.’ They’re pretty powerful.



PE: Why is Breaking Through Gridlock important for the future of sustainability?

SS: I believe sustainability is critical to consider and engage with as we face broader societal challenges. From climate change to social inadequacies to injustice – all of these elements are hard problems without easy solutions. If we cannot hear from lots of different people with different perspectives and experiences, then our ability to innovate and solves these challenges is severely limited.

Right now, so many elements of sustainability have become opposing sides of political schisms. This means people get heated more easily, or people start making assumptions faster. That’s something I see in my students’ papers all the time: assumptions. Because a student was Republican and the parent was Democrat they simply wouldn’t understand, value, or recognize what they other party was trying to communicate.

And yet, when they actually have these conversations, they discover there’s a little more common ground there than they thought.