Difficult Conversations: Connecting Across Difference

Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a French philosopher, social and political activist, mystic and teacher. In Waiting for God, she wrote:

“The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough… The love of neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?'” (2009, p. 5)

It’s a great question. What are you going through?

It’s also a great challenge. Do I have the capacity to give my care and attention consistently in this way to my students, my colleagues, my family and friends? Knowing that some of these voted in November for a worldview and values that I perceive as threatening on multiple levels, am I consistently curious and caring enough to ask them, too, “What are you going through?”

I’m working on it.

As a professor of education in what promises to be a pivotal moment in national and global history, I struggle with what to do, what to say, how to teach. In hindsight, I realize that this particular struggle started in a very small way, while brainstorming class norms with my students at the start of this semester – an activity that I include in the first session of every class that I teach. First, I ask students to list their behavioral expectations of me (i.e., process norms), partly to inform myself of their needs, partly to involve them in setting the bar for my performance and partly to set the stage for establishing high expectations for themselves and for each other. Then I ask them to do exactly that, to identify behavioral ideals for themselves and for each other (i.e., community norms). It is at this point, when brainstorming community norms, that someone inevitably suggests this one: “Respect the opinions of others.” In previous semesters I would let this stand, content in understanding the spirit of what students meant – that we would agree to respect the right of class members to hold differing opinions. This Fall, I couldn’t leave that suggested wording alone when it was offered in two of my face-to-face classes. Instead, I challenged it, saying, “In the context of this election season, I am finding that it’s not possible for me to agree that I will always respect the opinions of others, or that I’ll even want to try.” Many students agreed. I asked, “How could that norm for how we want to operate in here be phrased so that we can all support it?” In each class, we settled on statements like “Respect the rights of others to hold their own opinions” and “Honor the humanity of people with whom I disagree.”

That, I can support.

Still, offering up my curiosity, my concern and my attention by asking, “What are you going through?” requires so much more of me than simply honoring the rights of another to be other than I am and to believe differently than I do. What can I do, what do I say, how should I teach to cultivate the spirit of connecting across differences that “What are you going through” encourages? This has become an essential question for me. On one hand, connecting across difference is necessary for people who share values rooted in social justice – yet I am increasingly impatient with single-issue justice work. I am increasingly aware that affinity groups for historically marginalized and oppressed populations are essential but nowhere near enough. I am increasingly convinced that social justice work requires a coalition mindset – a socially inclusive and lived commitment to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s idea that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And on the other hand, beyond the sense of urgency for connecting across affinity groups working for social justice, I need to understand and find common ground with people whose world-views and values I do not share.

What can I do, what do I say, how should I teach?

In the weeks since November 8, I have relied on the existence of our class norms and the gift of this question from Simone Weil to guide the difficult conversations that my students and I needed (and still need) to have, and that they needed (and still need) me to facilitate. In this I agree with Jamilah Pitts, who, in a recent piece for Teaching Tolerance, urged educators to “Don’t Say Nothing” in the face of difficulty. “Students pay attention to everything we say and do,” she wrote. “They particularly pay attention to our silence” (2016, para. 1). Silence in difficult times simply can’t be an option, especially for those of us in leadership positions who enjoy privileges that should be usefully spent. So what can I do, what do I say, how should I teach?

A few weeks ago I used this need to “don’t say nothing” as a reason to again revisit class norms. I asked students two questions: “What are you going through now, in this post-election time?” and “What is one norm you are knocking out of the park and one that you need to work on?” I wanted us to be able to talk with each other about our individual post-election experiences while remembering the norms and values we’d developed together. I heard students discussing specific norms as they identified their individual strengths (e.g., do the work; take the class seriously; check privilege), recommitted to norms that named unmet goals (e.g., cultivate open-mindedness and mindfulness; share ideas and thoughts, even if they are not popular), and used those norms to set goals. One said, “I will not be quiet any longer.” I think the existence of class norms, alongside of Simone Weil’s encouragement to ask about each other’s experiences and needs, helped some students to claim their voices in a difficult time and accept their responsibility to “don’t say nothing.”

Learning how to have hard conversations and to connect across difference seems more important to me now than at any previous point in my lifetime. Creating norms for civil discourse and taking time to be curious and to care about what others are going through seem to me to be two good strategies for doing this essential work.



AdamStanislav. (2016, April 16). Fractal maze puzzle [Online image]. Retrieved November 30, 2016 from https://openclipart.org/detail/246815/fractal-maze-puzzle.

Pitts, J. (2016, Fall). Don’t say nothing. Teaching Tolerance, 54. Retrieved from http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/tt54-fall-2016/feature/dont-say-nothing.

Weil, S. (2009). Reflections on the right use of school studies with a view to the love of God,” in Waiting for God. New York: Harper Collins.

6 thoughts on “Difficult Conversations: Connecting Across Difference

  1. Thank you so much for articulating your struggle, our struggle, to be our best selves under increasingly challenging conditions. Our work is more important than ever.

  2. Thank you for this good and essential work, Kaia. You continue to inspire me to be more forthright in my teaching about issues of social justice. In a way, I find myself increasingly unhappy with the term “tolerance”–although it is probably a prerequisite to social justice, it also translates in some ways as to “put up with” or “live with.” This could encourage silence rather than “don’t say no.” Thanks for getting me thinking more about these issues and how we handle them in the classroom.

  3. Beautifully articulated, Kaia! You have spoken to my same concerns and challenges, as we face an uncertain and daunting future. I have also used the process of co-creating class norms, and I like how you have finely tuned them and created a “full circle” that both demonstrates their usefulness and helps create a safe container for exploring difficult (and for many, terrifying) developments in our nation and in many places around the world. I agree that “tolerance” often feels like an inadequate word/concept for the challenges we are facing – especially when we factor in taking it too far, when it might mean being tolerant of intolerance. I also like your mention of single-issue social justice. A long time ago a book came out about “Cultural Creatives” – those who demonstrate an awareness that all issues of social justice are interrelated, in another kind of “world wide web.” I am so grateful that we are starting dialogues here on campus about how to be leaders in speaking up, in facilitating the crucial dialogues, and in being leaders who “take responsibility to make a difference.” Thank you to you and Jules for calling us together.

  4. What’s interesting with difficult conversations is that, if you can get beyond the facade, you often end up finding deep agreement on values and mission.

    We all filter and distort what we sense, and we create our own stories. When we can remove the story and when we can operate in collaborative mode, it’s amazing how easy these difficult conversations often become.

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, insights and struggles. I appreciate your direct, strong and compassionate commentary. Your comments have helped to clarify my own thoughts and feelings. With gratitude for your leadership, honesty and vulnerability.

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