Facilitating Conversations about Hot Topics


Conversations about hot topics, such as race, gender, class, sexuality, and religion, are those in which participants are likely to have strong personal feelings and opinions on the subject.


The goal of conversations about hot topics is often to reach an understanding of multiple perspectives, not agree on a correct answer or debate the pros and cons of a position.1


Facilitators hold a position of great responsibility. They may or may not choose to publicly acknowledge their own position, but they are responsible for making space for other perspectives to be heard.

Strategies for Facilitators:

Acknowledge your own feelings and opinions on the topic to yourself and the group.1 You might choose to describe the evolution of your thinking on a topic, or acknowledge strong or conflicted feelings about your role as a facilitator.

Set goals and ground rules for the discussion that prioritize listening and understanding, and disallow personal attacks. If you feel personally attacked, do not respond in kind.2 Instead, model good communication by reframing the comment in a way that allows the other person to feel heard. For example, you might say, “I can tell that you feel strongly about this. Let’s talk about the different reasons people might feel this way.”1

Create space for multiple perspectives to be heard by inviting participation. Ask others to actively listen and accurately paraphrase other points of view.1

Separate effect from intention. Discuss the impact of words or points of view, rather than the assumed intent of the speaker. For example, saying “That argument makes me feel angry because . . .” focuses the conversation on the impact of a statement, not the potential motives of the person who has said it. This creates an opportunity for understanding.1

Take a step back, if the conversation becomes so heated that participants are no longer listening to one another. Ask the group to reflect on their own reactions.2

Remember, good book discussions are rooted in the text. Don’t be afraid to return the conversation to the book by asking the room to discuss a specific passage or argument.


1 Stone, D. and Lin, E. “Transformative Conversations.” Triad Consulting Group. 2014. http://brown.edu/go/transformative-conversations.

2 Warren, L. “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom.” Derek Bok Center. 2002. http://bokcenter.harvard.edu/managing-hot-moments-classroom.