Melissa Koenig

Creating Safe Environments for Difficult Conversations

A few weeks back I attended the Fall Forum on Teaching and Learning. This year the theme was Race & Social Identity. This is obviously a very important topic—especially given  the polarizing climate that we currently find ourselves in. The Keynote speaker, Terrell Strayhorn, spent a fair amount of time talking about how to create environments in our classrooms that are safe and welcoming for students who come from diverse backgrounds of experiences.

Interestingly, not long after attending this forum I was listening to a podcast from the TED Radio Hour on play. Now, these two things seem to not be related, but bear with me as I try and make the connection. While the episode was about play, one segment really got me thinking about how we might go about creating safe and welcoming environments in our classrooms, especially those where we want the students to participate in difficult conversations around things like race and privilege.

Specifically I think the most important skill we need to teach students is to have empathy for those who are not like them. Without empathy, I would argue, it is far more difficult to see another’s perspective. In fact the definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Without this ability it is nearly impossible to be able to really hear all sides of an argument.

This brings us back to the story on play. In this episode there was a conversation with neuroscientist Jeff Mogil. Mogil states that we have a hard time having empathy with strangers because we are stressed out by them. Even if, as Mogil suggests, such stress is true of all strangers, I would argue that it can be amplified when we bring hot button topics like race and privilege into the conversation.

To measure stress and empathy, Mogil conducted a study that looked at the perception of pain. In the study, participants were asked to rate their pain after plunging their hand into a bucket of ice water for 30 seconds. Each participant was tested 3 times, once by themselves, once with a stranger, and once with a friend. Interestingly, when participants did the test with a friend, their pain was worse than it was by themselves. If tested with a stranger it was the same as if they were tested by themselves.

What the researchers attributed this finding to was a form of empathy called emotional contagion. Essentially your pain is worse if you are with your friend because you absorb some of their pain and add it to your own. In other words, the researchers found that we are wired to not care about strangers, which is a super depressing thought.

Here is the interesting thing, and perhaps something to consider when looking at creating safer classroom environments—especially if your subject requires engaging in difficult conversations. The study also found that you can reduce the stress (thus increase the empathy) between strangers if participants played 15 minutes of the collaborative video game Rock Band. What they found was that after just 15 minutes of play, subjects tested the same with a stranger as they did with a friend. The play reduced the stress, and reducing the stress allowed the empathy to emerge.

I am not suggesting that all classes with difficult content have their students play Rock Band (although it could be fun), but I would argue that we may want to consider utilizing some form of cooperative play to help students reduce stress so they can be more empathetic to those around them with differing viewpoints. Who knows, it just might make us all able to listen to each other a little more.

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