How can I manage difficult discussions in group work?

Created by Tracy Dix and Alex Patel

Heated discussions artwork

Conflict, disagreement, discussion, arguing by John Hain (2014) at


Sometimes during teaching, difficult conversations emerge, and sometimes, we deliberately start these conversations around sensitive topics. Currently, our University is looking at awarding and satisfaction gaps for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students, which means many of us will be straying into conversations with students around race where we may feel worried about discussions becoming offensive. Additionally, we may find it hard to create space for minority students (and staff) to be heard. We therefore, may need to think more carefully about planning and managing these valuable kinds of discussion.


This excellent resource by The Teaching Center has useful recommendations for establishing ground rules to promote an environment of inclusion and mutual respect. It offers a sample set of rules that can be adapted and negotiated with students at the start of a discussion activity. If conversations become too heated, or upsetting, the group then has an agreed set of rules to refer back to.


Furthermore, when challenging conversations do occur, it can be useful to have a range of strategies that we can draw on in order to maintain respect. These can include bringing conversations back to the clear objectives and structure of the session, promoting the value of different perspectives and other methods for addressing emotive exchanges.


Remember, we shouldn’t avoid important discussions just because they are potentially challenging, but we can prepare ourselves to manage them so that they remain focused on achieving their objective.



Thanks to The Teaching Center at Washington University in St. Louis for their resource, ‘Establishing Classroom Ground Rules’ (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)




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About apatel

As a Learning Developer for Leicester Learning Institute, I create opportunities for learners to understand and develop the academic literacies, skills and approaches required by their "academic culture" or discipline.

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