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Courageous Conversations, Part II: Empowering Students to Have Difficult Conversations

Updated: Jul 16, 2021

By Aisha Powell, CEI Intern

U.S. students average six hours a day, 30 hours a week, more than 1,000 hours a year in school (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018; Sparks, 2019). With students spending a substantial amount of time in school, the classroom should be a place where all students feel heard, empowered and supported. Building this classroom environment is the utopian dream of all educators, and it comes with making intentional, and often difficult, steps towards building this kind of community. Creating a space where all students and staff feel encouraged to have courageous conversations is the first step to empowering students. While these conversations can range from anything from racial issues to physical abuse, it can also include what’s happening in the world outside the school building—like climate change, gun violence and police brutality—all of which can directly affect students’ mental and physical health.

Furthering Compassion through Courageous Conversations in the Classroom

Youth spend a significant portion of their day interacting with their peers and teachers in the school building. While formal social-emotional learning (SEL) programs and informal opportunities that occur during academic lessons are intended to help grow inter- and intrapersonal skills, the classroom environment also provides an ideal opportunity to start impactful conversations, as long as students feel like they are a part of a compassionate community.

Establishing trust among your community of learners, in the classroom and as a school, is a key step that happens before engaging in courageous conversations. Drs. Christine Mason, Michele Rivers Murphy, and Yvette Jackson (2020) advise that the Five Cs of Heart Centered Learning— consciousness, compassion, courage, confidence, and community—are key to building trust among your community. A community built on trust is better able to have the difficult conversations that precede compassionate action.

How Talking Leads to Change

While talking may not seem like a means to an end, it can spark bigger changes and movements that are boundless. Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were motivated to speak up for stricter gun control laws because of the tragedy that happened in their school that highlighted the increased gun violence in the United States. After the deadliest school shooting massacre in 2018 killed 17 people at the high school, students began calling out leaders for lax gun control laws and advocating for national change. They even took the conversation global, by starting the #NeverAgain and #EnoughIsEnough campaigns and eventually organizing the March for Our Lives, the largest single-day protest against gun violence (March for Our Lives, n.d.).

When a then 16-year-old Greta Thunberg started a one-woman protest in Sweden advocating for climate control laws in 2018, she had no idea that her voice would start a global movement (Friday For Future, n.d.). Today, she is not only internationally known for her activism, but has also inspired schools across the globe to start the conversation about the climate crisis, too. Students across America not only participated in ‘Friday for Future’ school walkouts, but the New York City Department of Education also stood by students by excusing absences and stating:

We applaud our students when they raise their voices in a safe and respectful manner on issues that matter to them. Young people around the world are joining the #ClimateStrike this week—showing that student action will lead us forward (NYC Public Schools, 2019).

Steps for Your School’s Courageous Conversation

Conversations can look different in all schools, but these guidelines can help you begin the process of empowering students. The first step is educating yourself, and other educators, and actively embracing cultural humility, or “a process of self-reflection and discovery in order to build honest and trustworthy relationships” (Yeager & Bauer-Wu, 2013). This includes addressing 1) your own bias which might be hindering openness in the classroom, 2) the lack of acknowledgement of the power dynamics in the classroom, and/or 3) discrimination or prejudice that occurs either subconsciously or knowingly.

When having these conversations, an important tenant is making students feel safe. To ensure this, use the four agreements of courageous conversations (Singleton & Johnson, 2006) which include:

  1. Stay completely engaged in the dialogue.

  2. Experience discomfort, which will inevitably happen when having difficult conversations. Talking about the issue doesn’t create divisiveness, the divisiveness already exists in society. Allowing students to bring issues into the open is when healing and change begin.

  3. Speak your truth and allow others to speak theirs.

  4. Expect and accept non-disclosure. Speaking about the issue doesn’t mean it will be solved that day or anytime soon. You may come back to the issue; it can rise again and you may never come to resolve but allowing the conversation to happen is the start of change.

While the Courageous Conversations model was originally developed to have much needed dialogue concerning issues with race, which will be discussed in Part III of this series, it can be adapted to other contentious topics like violence, politics, mental health, or social inequality. To learn more about how Singleton and Linton (2006) developed the Courageous Conversations framework, read Part I of this series.


Friday For Future. (n.d.). About #FridaysForFuture.

March for Our Lives. (n.d.). Mission & story.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). State education reforms (SER).

Singleton, G.E., & Linton, C. (2006). Courageous conversations about race: A field guide for achieving equity in schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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