A Deep Breath…then Dialogue

*Breathe in, breathe out* | *Breathe in, breathe out**Breathe in, breathe out*

Have you ever experienced a situation where someone says something that sparks a highly emotional, head-spinning, heart-racing reaction? Perhaps you are Tom Hanks and someone just told you that you’re portrayal of Robert Langdon is a bit stiff and lacks emotion. Something a little more common; you may be teaching in a classroom where a student states that we have a black president, so racism doesn’t exist anymore. This is a difficult conversation to have and our fight/flight response kicks in pretty quickly. How can we better engage in dialogues about diversity when they can produce so much anxiety and fear?


Dr. Maura Cullen offers a few suggestions for de-escalating (without disengaging) uncomfortable or challenging situations. B.A.R. (Breathe Acknowledge Respond) is a quick technique to help diffuse emotionally charged situations and work through uncomfortability productively.

  • Breathe – Take a deep breath. It’s a simple way to calm you immediately.
  • Acknowledge – Acknowledge what the person is saying through active listening or asking questions to further your understanding of their perspective. You may not agree with what they are saying and it’s important to acknowledge and/or validate their feelings or context.
  • Respond – After taking a deep breath, acknowledging what the person is saying, you give yourself a better chance of responding with thought and empathy than simply blurting out your gut reaction.

There are proactive measures you can take as well! Co-creating expectations between colleagues, students, volunteers, and others can help provide a shared understanding of how difficult conversations will go. These expectations can be used to model positive dialogue behaviors, de-escalate situations when they become harmful, and guide necessary follow-up.

For additional resources on having difficult dialogues, please visit the following:

OEDI Sway: Difficult Conversations in the Classroom

Responding to Difficult Moments

Start Talking Handbook

Handbook for Facilitating Difficult Conversations in the Classroom

Seven Bricks to Lay the Foundation for Productive Difficult Dialogues