Facilitating Dialogue

Binghamton University recognizes that our community members are often affected by complex, difficult issues happening on campus and across the world. These conflicts can spark deep feelings and emotions, and it is important for students, faculty and staff to have space to process them in a safe and supportive way. These conversations may include opportunities for students to process within their own identity groups, as well as through broader dialogue across differences. We also acknowledge that issues affect us in different ways based on our identities, our involvement in political issues and personal experiences. 

Regardless of the current state or outcome of the conflict, the collective human experience means that some students will look for spaces to process and move forward together. Issues and conflict often extend beyond a single event. Sometimes there is no resolution. This can lead to heightened anxiety and uncertainty.

Recognizing that these conversations may be difficult, we recommend that opportunities for dialogue occur in smaller group settings in which students feel a sense of connection and belonging to safely share their experiences and feelings. These spaces may include courses, living communities, campus offices and student organizations. Faculty, staff and students know these communities best and can structure conversations in ways that make sense. This resource is intended to provide general guidelines for facilitating dialogue on difficult issues. 

Conversation ground rules:

Before beginning a dialogue, it is helpful to establish ground rules that the group collectively agrees to follow. Some suggestions for ground rules include:

  • Be aware of how much space you take up in the conversation and especially how that intersects with your privileged identities; share the air time with others.
  • Listen for understanding, not to “win.”
  • What is said in the room stays in the room; no recording allowed. 
  • Do not expect that we will all agree.
  • Critique ideas, but avoid personal attacks; dehumanizing others and making personal attacks will not be tolerated. 
  • Challenge yourself to learn something new and ask questions when something is unclear.
  • Look for common ground when possible.
  • Create a space for students to speak honestly and openly, but also a space for students to acknowledge when someone’s words are hurtful. 
  • Take ownership of the impact of your words, regardless of intention. 
  • Allow space for group members who need to leave the conversation or not participate; don’t make assumptions or judgments based on an individual’s level of outward participation.

Discussion formats:

  • Consider starting the conversation with a common reading, short video or audio clips, images or other content that will provide some common ground for discussion. 
  • If the conversation is taking place in a class, consider how the topic relates to your course content or the discipline more broadly. 
  • If the dialogue is taking place virtually, consider taking advantage of digital tools such as anonymous polling, word clouds and use of the chat function. These tools will allow flexibility for students to participate in ways that are comfortable to them. 
  • Depending on the size and dynamics of your group, it may be helpful to break students into smaller groups where they are more comfortable sharing. However, be mindful of how you will monitor the conversations, especially in virtual settings. 
  • Take time in advance to reflect on your role as a facilitator and the extent to which you want to share your personal views or try to maintain “neutrality.” If you do choose to share your own views, be aware of your own power in the space and whether students are comfortable disagreeing with or challenging your views. If you prefer to stay “neutral” consider whether this will make the conversation feel inauthentic or impact students’ desire to participate.  

Sample discussion questions:

  • What was your experience? What motivated you to get involved?
  • Reflecting on your own identities, privileges and biases, what life experiences have shaped your attitudes?
  • If you are disappointed in results, can you imagine why others are not?
  • What voices or perspectives are missing from the room?
  • Reflecting on the issues that matter most to you, what are some ways you can take action?
  • What are strategies to stay engaged beyond the immediate conflict?
  • Where do you get your news and information? How do you think this impacts your views? How can we identify mis and disinformation? 
  • How can we care for ourselves and avoid fatigue or burnout?