Reflecting on Sensitive Topics
Any organization that aims to promote the common good will eventually bump up against a range of topics that are difficult and often painful to discuss, from racism and structural inequality, to child maltreatment and community violence. Our natural reaction is often to shy away from such difficult or controversial topics, or to approach them in a superficial or euphemistic way. However, research suggests that critical and sustained reflection about the relationships between these topics and your work is crucial for the social, political and civic development of group members, and crucial for building effective, sustainable community-based programs.
The following guidelines (adapted from Moore & Deshaies, 2013) are designed to help you facilitate critical reflection about sensitive topics.
1. Set the stage. In order for group members to express their opinions and participate in critical reflections about sensitive subjects, they need to feel safe and not fear retaliation for comments they make during the reflection. Establish a supportive atmosphere by making community agreements early in the year. The following are examples of agreements that may help foster more productive reflection:
- listen respectfully, without interrupting
- respect one another’s views
- criticize ideas, not individuals
- commit to learning, not debating
- avoid blame and speculation
- avoid inflammatory language
2. Know yourself. Before facilitating a critical reflection about possible sensitive topics, it is important that you consider your own biases or confusion surrounding the issue. How have you come to know what you know or think what you think? Why have you valued some information or sources over others? When seeking to help group members understand others or study historically sensitive topics, it is important to discuss the concepts of empathy and perspective. We are all products of our society and culture, and attitudes and values change. Discussing a moment when your own ideas changed may help model the open-mindedness and conscientious self-reflection that you hope to inspire.
3. Recognize the diversity of your group members. It is important to remember that each member of your group comes from a unique background and has had different experiences. See this diversity as an asset. Authentic opportunities for learning happen when group members are exposed to many different perspectives. Give group members the opportunity to express their views and make it your goal to understand, value, and respect the backgrounds and experiences that formed them.
4. Set a framework and objective for your reflection. To get the most out of your reflection, when possible state an objective for the reflection that connects to the mission of the group. Also establish a specific focus. This will keep the group members on task and ensure that your goals for the reflection are met.
5. Provide a common base for understanding. It can be useful to base discussion on a short readings or a video clip about a topic relevant to your work as a way to prompt critical reflection. Using materials that provide a context for examining diverse perspectives allow group members to gain an awareness of others’ views, and offer group members a framework in which to expand their knowledge about conflicting positions they might otherwise disregard.
6. Be an active facilitator. As the facilitator, you should neither dominate the critical reflection nor merely passively observe. Your role as the facilitator should include intervening in the critical reflection to:
- provide reminders about respecting the right of others to have differing opinions,
- re-word questions posed by group members
- correct misinformation
- ask for clarification
- keep the conversation on track
- ask probing and deepening questions
- review main points
- make reference to relevant academic scholarship
7. Foster civility. There is a good chance that critical reflections about sensitive topics may become heated. The main goal of fostering civility is to protect your group members from feeling personally attacked. Make sure group members understand that it is okay to disagree, but keep comments focused on the ideas and not the people who share their ideas.
8. Be prepared to deal with tense or emotional moments. When discussing sensitive issues or difficult topics, it is very possible that some group members will get angry or upset. If this happens, remain calm and try to turn it into a learning experience. Don’t avoid the issue, but do defer it until you make a plan for dealing with it if necessary.
9. Encourage the testing of assumptions. One key feature of responsive, adaptive engaged citizens is that they are willing to be proven wrong, and they are willing to change their minds. Begin a reflection by asking group members to become willing to look critically at their own assumptions and preconceptions. Ask people to think about the circumstances under which they would actually be willing to change their minds. A meta-level conversation about what is hard about changing one’s mind can also be extremely fruitful as a reflection activity in and of itself. Guide your group through a conversation about the costs and the payoffs of holding steadfastly to our beliefs.
10. Evaluate your process. Evaluation of reflection activities ~ whether in the form of dialogue, free writing, or survey completion (or some mix of both) ~ plays a key role in the cycle of community-based work. The evaluation process encourages group members to actively examine the group dynamic as well as their own thought processes, and allows them to recognize and name instances of openness, guardedness, defensiveness, conceptual change, or even epiphany. Assessing the reflection process in writing will allow quieter or more reserved group members an opportunity to respond privately, and allow everyone a chance to unwind and think calmly about his or her views on the issue. Evaluation can help group members suggest new avenues and opportunities for further critical reflection. You can use written evaluations to develop extension activities that will build on what has occurred and support differing viewpoints that may have been unvoiced at the table previously.