Becoming Comfortable with the Uncomfortable: A Resource for Engaging in Difficult Dialogue

Guest post by Aralia Ramirez | Student Development Coordinator for Student Engagement, Leadership

Reflecting on my experience working within the Student Leadership office the past eight months, I feel fortunate to be in a position to support students on their journey to making meaning of their values, character, and community and understanding how their experiences influence the lens through which they see the world. As a first-generation and low-income college student, I faced and continue to face challenges navigating institutional environments that were not designed with me in mind. I was fortunate to be part of TRiO Educational Talent Search (ETS), a federal program designed to guide first-generation and historically low-income students to college. In addition to the community of support my ETS advisors provided me, they also helped guide me through the college application process, financial aid, registering for classes, and figuring out what I wanted to do with my degree post-graduation. 

During that process, I learned that I had an interest in Sociology and Higher Education because I wanted to understand how to create equitable policies and environments within our education system and communities. Programs like TRiO, and other federal and state funded programs, exist because institutions of higher education, among other systems in our country, were not originally designed to help marginalized and underserved populations. There is no quick step-by-step solution to solving social problems, but one place to start is with having a deep understanding of ourselves, the identities that we hold, and how we influence the world around us. To be able to engage in conversations about social issues with people who hold different views can be challenging and often creates a barrier for progress to be made.

It is uncomfortable and often times we are taught at a young age to avoid difficult conversations with friends, faculty, administrators, colleagues, strangers, etc. I can recall moments where these conversations have resulted in tears, anger, frustration and relationships being strained. While working towards my master’s degree at the University of Iowa, I had the opportunity to be part of a research team, led by Dr. Sherry Watt, that explores reactions people have to difficult dialogues related to social issues and how to create environmental conditions for productive controversial dialogues. Dr. Watt developed the Privileged Identity Exploration (PIE) model that identifies eight types of reactions that individuals display when engaging in difficult dialogue around social justice issues. The eight defenses are Denial, Deflection, Rationalization, Intellectualization, Principium, False Envy, Benevolence, and Minimization. Although these are eight common behaviors found though research, I want to emphasize that these are not the only ones that exist, nor should this model be used to put individuals into boxes.

The PIE model can be a useful tool for anticipating and preparing for common reactions in order to continue to lead productive conversation around social issues. Not only has the PIE model helped me navigate conversations with students and with colleagues around issues related to social justice, but it has also made me more aware of my own reactions when engaging in difficult conversations with others. As a woman of color who was raised in a low-income household, I still hold privileged identities by being cis-gender, having a bachelors and master’s degree, having a lighter skin completion, etc. The lens through which I view the world is unique to my experiences and the more I am aware of my identities and how I show up in the world, the better I can contribute to my community.

As we help students develop as leaders, I believe it is important to provide them with the tools to be able to engage in conversation with people who may hold different views in order to develop a deeper understanding of others. As students become increasingly involved in development opportunities outside of the classroom, specifically civic engagement, it is essential to provide consistent mentorship, training, and reflection opportunities to make sure that our university’s impact on our local and global community is aligned with our university’s mission and commitment to ethical service. The PIE model can be a great tool to help facilitate these conversations among students, staff, and faculty. I encourage you to read more about each of the defenses and to reflect on your experiences with conversations you have had with students, staff, and/or faculty. While reading about each of these defenses and thinking about how to navigate difficult dialogue, keep in mind that reflecting on one’s identities and engaging in conversation across difference is key to raising critical consciousness.  

If you are interested in learning more about PIE, I invite you to read the full article and to attend the Leadership Educators Collaborative workshop I will be presenting at on January 30 from 11:30 am – 1:00 pm in the Center for Leadership Development and Social Action. 

About the author: Aralia Olivia Ramirez Jauregui is a Student Development Coordinator for Student Engagement, Leadership. Her role primarily focuses on planning the Duke Authenticity Project, advising Duke Partnership for Service, and working with the ACC Leadership Symposium. She earned her bachelors in Sociology from California State University, Chico and her master’s in Higher Education and Student Affairs from the University of Iowa. Aralia is first-generation Mexican-American and a first-generation college student who strives to develop equitable spaces and opportunities for students.