“Conflict is a part of our lives in so many ways, and we need better ways to work with that,” said Dr. Aftab Erfan, Director of Dialogue and Conflict Engagement at the UBC Equity and Inclusion Office. In her role, she works with students, faculty, and staff doing a mix of conflict intervention and capacity building. On February 14, Erfan facilitated a workshop to explore conflict and how to engage with controversial classroom topics. The workshop was hosted by CTLT Indigenous Initiatives as part of their monthly Classroom Climate series.
Erfan defined conflict as difference that matters. “It’s difference that mobilizes our emotional resources,” Erfan explained. “It’s natural and normal, and we’re likely going to have more of it. It’s not a bad thing per se…If we know what to do with it, conflict can be a pathway to something that we couldn’t touch before, that we can now begin to work with and learn from.”
Engaging with differences
Erfan shared four approaches that are typically used when engaging with differences. The first approach is violation of code, where one person is determined to be right or wrong based on policy or code. In contrast, the social justice approach is based on a sense of right and wrong, which may be independent from the law and is rooted in a critical analysis of power relationships in society. In the third approach, known as the dialogic approach, there are a range of views and personal experiences and perspectives that people can have a conversation about without an imposed sense of right and wrong. The final approach is the embodied approach, where through being together, such as engaging in activities ranging from ritual to the arts and athletics, people work through some of their differences without directly talking about them.
Erfan suggested that these four approaches should be woven together. “They each have pros and cons,” she said. “There are ways they can be combined or support each other.”
Using a metaphor from cell biology, Erfan described how a classroom can be thought of as a cell. To keep the cell healthy, there is a semi-porous boundary that allows some substances to be absorbed while also protecting the cell from certain other objects trying to enter. In a classroom, instructors, whether explicitly or implicitly, also set boundaries. This boundary can help determine, for example, what the class is about or how students should interact with each other. Boundaries, Erfan said, are necessary for things to make sense and get done.
In this metaphor, controversial topics can be thought of as the substances that are often not allowed to enter the cell due to boundaries set by the instructor. For example, if a student wants to talk about creationism, it may fall outside the boundaries of an evolution biology class, but could be talked about in a theology class. Erfan explained that there is nothing good or bad about the topic itself, but it can create a sense of conflict when the boundaries are set such that the topic is excluded in the classroom.
Erfan noted that there are many good reasons to define the boundaries of a class and firmly hold onto them. But boundaries can also shift and change over time, and this is desirable in many ways. She explained that when boundaries are too rigid and immovable, it may lead to isolation, polarization, and escalation of conflict. She emphasized the importance of instructors understanding classroom boundaries and making a conscious choice about when or whether they need to be shifted.
Controversial topics that surface in a classroom do not always have to, or even should, be engaged. But Erfan wants instructors to develop the skills and capacity to engage in these topics, if they choose.
She points to metaskills, which are the attitude or ways in which someone uses their skills and tools. When dealing with conflict in the classroom, an attitude of non-judgmental curiosity can be an important metaskill so that an instructor can effectively play the role of a facilitator.
To be an effective facilitator, an instructor should help the conversation along and encourage a variety of views to surface, rather than push a single point of view. Erfan described this as ‘leaning out’. In contrast, ‘leaning in’ is delivering content, setting boundaries, and expressing the instructor’s own views and stances. While this is an important part of teaching, Erfan said, “If all you’re doing is leaning in, there isn’t actually much room for different views to come in.”
Erfan introduced and demonstrated one method for opening space for conversation. In the method, everyone stands up. When someone expresses a view, you move towards them if you agree and away if you disagree. When the facilitator notices a polarity, they ask each side of the discussion to occupy a part of the room. One side will speak first, followed by the other. People can also stand in the middle, or switch sides as they hear something they agree or disagree with.
“It’s a way of deepening the conversation a little bit,” Erfan explained. “Instead of going into a fight, structure it so that we can hear both of these sides, both of which have truth in them.”
The role of the facilitator in this method, Erfan said, is to physically stand with the side that is speaking and, through their presence, give some validation to what that side is saying. If the facilitator has a point, they can also ‘lean in’ and express it. This method, Erfan emphasized, is not meant to result in a winning side, or to convince students to agree. Rather, it is to give space for each side to be expressed and heard in order to bring nuance and complexity to the conversation. She explained, “New insights can come because siloed groups of people are actually talking to each other. If we don’t want to become a totally polarized society, we need more of these kinds of spaces on campus.”