Handling Planned or Unexpected Class Discussions Involving Sensitive Topics

Sensitive topics can be extremely diverse and may include: race and ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, sexuality, physical appearance, disability, socioeconomic status, politics, religion, genetic testing, evolution, immigration, grief, loss, trauma, and many more.

Not all potentially sensitive topics can be anticipated, just as not all topics listed above might stir up emotions or provoke reactions, but being prepared for when they do arise will help you create an inclusive climate for civil discourse. This guide is intended to help you prepare for potentially sensitive topics and offer some tips and strategies for facilitating discussions on sensitive topics in the moment.

What We’ve Heard from Students

  • Acknowledging a sensitive topic is better than ignoring it, even if only to state that the topic is important and note that it may have ranging effects across students. As future leaders, they value that the classroom is an opportunity to serve as a model for learning about managing conflict. GSB students have been particularly vocal about the need to address sensitive topics in the classroom.
  • Students are willing to learn alongside their professors when sticky moments arise in the classroom. They are very aware that as future leaders, they will need to manage sensitive moments in their professional futures and that it’s important for them to be prepared.
  • Students’ diverse lived experiences may impact how they respond to certain topics. Some topics, not necessarily due to past experiences or current realities, may also stir up emotions for some students.

Framework for Addressing Sensitive Topics

Whether the sensitive topic is planned, or unplanned, you can draw on the Three A’s Framework to guide how to address the issues when they arise.

Anticipate → Acknowledge → Act Authentically

AnticipateAcknowledgeAct Authentically
Sensitive topics come in many forms in the classroom. Before your course even begins, and as you plan each lesson, review your material with an eye for where difficult topics might creep in. Additionally, keep note of any emerging cultural or political topics that may be impacting your students. Recognize that your students are whole people coming to you with a rich history. Additionally, recognize your own reactions as well as students’ responses to the topic. In acknowledging the topic, be open and transparent with your students. Let them know that you recognize the topic is important and that you are noticing a variety of responses and perspectives.Pause and try to understand the scenario so that your response comes from a place of understanding rather than an emotional reaction. How you choose to respond should be authentic to you and your facilitation style.

Anticipate and Plan

Sensitive topics will likely arise or may already be part of your curriculum. Ensuring you are prepared will go a long way in helping you and your students feel equipped to manage reactions in the moment. Think about your course and the potential moments when sensitive topics could occur in your curriculum. Use the tips below to plan your approach through a lens of inclusivity.

Before the Discussion

  • When you know in advance you will be raising potentially sensitive topics, allow enough time for the discussion and share this planned time frame with your students at the outset.
  • Provide clear norms and boundaries, also referred to as guardrails, that inform students how you expect discussions to unfold in your course and post them in your syllabus. Students say that hearing upfront and repeated course norms that welcome diverse perspectives fosters a safe climate for exploring differing opinions. You may even want to consider setting aside class time to have your students collaboratively contribute to the development of the class norms. Consider the following questions when you are determining how you might design your discussion norms for your course:
    • How might you expect students to engage in active listening when it comes to differing opinions or perspectives?
    • How might students respect each other’s values even if they disagree? Consider providing students with some pragmatic tools on how to engage with each other, such as:
      • Ask questions to understand the perspective of others instead of rushing to judgment as a reaction to something that was stated.
      • Use “I” statements to express your perspective when experiencing a personal reaction to something that was said.
      • If something is stated that hurts you, note the statement/phrasing that is hurtful and explain why instead of blaming the person.
      • See more ideas in the Guidelines For Classroom Interactions resource from University of Michigan.
    • How might students be mindful about how they take the floor and yield to other perspectives?
    • What role will you take to create a safe space for the flow of discourse and how might you step in at points when a discussion is getting off track or heated?
Headshot of Keith Hennessey
Keith Hennessey

Lecturer in Economics Keith Hennessey states these major classroom norms on the first day of each course he teaches:

  • The Principle of Charity — You should assume good intent and interpret someone’s words in their best, strongest form. If you are in doubt of their intent, ask rather than assume.
  • Golden Rule / Principle of Respect — Treat others as you would want others to treat you. In the classroom, treat others with respect, especially when you think they don’t deserve it.
  • Chatham House Rule — Participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker, nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.
Headshot of David Dodson
David Dodson

Lecturer in Management David Dodson sets up the expectation for students to respond with “radical candor” in his course. He sets up this norm, repeats the expectation frequently, and responds with positive feedback during candid engagements to encourage open discussion. Watch him describe how he uses radical candor.

Here’s what one student said in response to David’s strategy:

Student Quote: I felt reminded that I can speak up, and I can say things that might be contradictory, and that I could do it in a way that’s going to be received thoughtfully.

Headshot of Kate Casey
Katherine Casey

Associate Professor of Political Economy Katherine Casey sets the discussion norm of acknowledging and separating positive and normative arguments.

Throughout the class, I articulate that we’re going to have two tracks of discussion, positive and normative. A lot of the conversations we have in analytical activities are positive, such as what we expect to happen and how we make reasonable predictions from data. But we also talk about what should happen, or normative viewpoints. I explain to the class that when we talk about these two types of ideas, everyone has to be clear which track they’re on. Problems sometimes arise when positive arguments are misconstrued as normative ones, and maintaining clear parallel tracks creates space for contradiction and disagreement that’s not super overheated.

  • Explain why discussing a potentially sensitive topic is important for their learning experience, and acknowledge that discomfort is a natural part of such discussions. Szu-chi Huang explains how she frames her courses with potential for culture clashes and discomfort:

On the first day I highlight that certain course topics will introduce discomfort–I think that has worked really well. Just the fact that I’ve recognized that this could be difficult and that there could be discomfort, and that it is part of the learning, helps students re-frame those difficulties from a learning perspective.

  • Give students advanced notice of topics you will be covering to allow space for students to identify their needs to navigate the topic. For example, they may find they’ll need to step out and take a break from a discussion that provokes a reaction. Ensure you create an open invitation for students to privately email you or speak to you about measures you can take to ensure the discussion remains safe for them to stay engaged.

Student Quote: I found that when we generally preview the next case at the end of class, it is super helpful, especially if acknowledging the reasons why this topic is important and explaining how we’re going to develop the skills to talk about it.

Student Quote: For me as a student, I think it helps [to frame the conversation] when professors start by saying “This is a class that discusses sensitive topics – ones that you’ll encounter in your career. I might get some of this wrong, and if I do, please tell me because I am interested in learning along with you. Even though it can make me and you all nervous to have this conversation, we think it’s more important to do it than to shy away because of how important this is.”

  • Employ content notices, cautionary statements that are spoken or printed, to alert students to the sensitive nature of material that will be seen, read, or discussed in class. Content notices are not intended to permit students to skip class or censor your material, but rather to give students the time to make use of the strategies that will decrease the harmfulness of encountering sensitive material. See this resource for more information on writing content notices at the GSB.
  • Provide a way for students to pose questions about planned topics in advance of class (e.g., over email or in a form). Allowing students to reach out to you ahead of time not only gives students a chance to explore their own initial reactions but can give you a heads up about questions or reactions the students are having, thereby allowing you to prepare for in-person interactions.
  • Plan for what you will say to be supportive when you initiate the topic and when you close the discussion. Examples might include acknowledging that there will be differing perspectives, everyone is coming from different lived experiences, or that you recognize the efforts that students are putting in to listen and attend to these difficult topics with curiosity and a goal for learning.

We need to keep in mind that we as human beings are coming from different backgrounds, and we will respond to things differently. I want to hear all kinds of perspectives because they all matter. –Szu-chi Huang

Acknowledge and Act Authentically in the Moment

A sensitive topic may reach your classroom whether you initiate it or not. Students may bring the topic to the table, or the subject may come up spontaneously due to course content or current events. Whether the topic is part of your course materials or is unplanned, you may wish to employ some of the strategies below to facilitate the conversation.

When the Topic Arises

  • Give yourself a moment to understand the student(s) involved, your own reactions, and the dynamics at play. Taking a brief step back to introspect and observe will help you avoid reacting too quickly or coming off as defensive or dismissive and will allow you to feel able to respond more authentically.
  • Acknowledge when difficult topics arise. If an unplanned sensitive topic comes up, simply taking a moment to acknowledge it and the many different perspectives in the room will help students see you’re engaged and that you’re making space for their ideas.
  • Decide whether you are ready and willing to engage with the topic now. Acknowledge the value of having a discussion, but you can defer until you have a plan or dedicated class time to address it. If you find you are not ready to handle a discussion on the fly, do not feel obliged to do so. Deferring can give you a chance to prepare and allow students to think more deeply about the topic. Be transparent about your plan and the reasoning behind it. You could:
    • Address it further at a later time, such as in the next class or through an open discussion group. For example, “I don’t feel ready to respond right now” or “I’d like time to think through a response and how we might have a productive discussion about this.”
    • Ask students to write briefly on the topic, and then summarize and present their ideas and reactions at the next class session.
  • Be explicit about how much time you will spend on the topic the moment it arises. Letting students know that you are creating an intentional time frame and boundary will serve to provide students a forum while still allowing you to focus on your teaching goals.

As you Facilitate the Discussion

  • Establish ground rules or refer back to your norms and guardrails you’ve previously established for your course. Urge students to speak for themselves and listen to each other, taking care to respect each other and the value of constructive discussion.
  • Expect the topic to stir emotions. Be attentive to the human and emotional toll the crisis is taking and the impact of information disseminated by you and others.
  • Reposition polarizing or divisive comments as a topic for general discussion and opportunity for learning.
    • For example, “Many people think this way. Why do they hold this view?” and “What is inaccurate or missing from this view? What are the implications?”
  • Explicitly acknowledge the difference in the types of comments made during the discussion (e.g., emotional, informational, analytical). You can help students understand one another better if you assist them in seeing the different orientations of each other’s statements.
  • Allow everyone a chance to talk (when possible), but don’t force students to participate. Understand that students will have varying reactions to the discussion, and some will prefer to remain silent.
  • Be a learning partner with your students. If someone unexpectedly disagrees with a point you’ve made, approach their statement with curiosity and model openness to your students.

Close the Discussion

Looking to implement or adapt any of these tips on creating an inclusive classroom, diversifying course content, or managing sensitive topics for your courses? The Teaching and Learning Hub is here to help.

Additional Resources