Learning to Lean Into Difficult Conversations

Last week, the Equity and Engagement Team, partnering with BRIDGE student leaders, faculty, and the Rivers Counseling and Wellness team, launched its first Upper School programming session in support of this year’s DEI theme, “Engaging Across Differences.” During the extended assembly time, the team unveiled a practical and innovative framework, “How To Have Difficult Conversations.” BRIDGE members held a moderated platform to model and demonstrate how this framework unfolds. The topic for discussion: the escalating humanitarian crisis in Israel and Palestine resulting from the October 7 Hamas attacks.

Head of School Ryan S. Dahlem prefaced the meeting by underscoring the school’s commitment to equity and inclusion and how the work aligns with the school’s mission and philosophy of Excellence with Humanity. “Cultural competency skills are crucial to thriving in the next step of your educational journey.” Dahlem stated. He added, “We also want Rivers to be the most inclusive school community possible, where every student and adult feels seen, known, and has a sense of belonging. That doesn’t just automatically happen. It requires a skill set for all of us, and a commitment to creating an inclusive community.”

Director of DEI Jenny Jun-lei Kravitz introduced the goals of the program and talked about the importance of learning and growing from mistakes, especially bias-related ones. All of us are “guaranteed” to make them, and she shared that the framework is essentially “a guide to leaning into these important connections in ways that make you feel more prepared and better equipped to find meaning and expand your [own] understanding.” During the meeting, the team elaborated on each pillar of the framework:

• Preparation: Know why you are entering the conversation, and consider your desired outcome. 
• Listening: How can you listen with the goal of connection, education, and engagement?
• Responding: How do your answers and replies add to the conversation in a productive way?
• Repairing harm: If feelings are hurt or harm is done, how do you apologize and recover from this situation?

This versatile framework can be used across any topic or issue and in a variety of settings. Members of Rivers’ Counseling and Wellness team offered additional guidance around each  step. For example, they said, during the “Responding” stage, lead with empathy and gratitude for the other person by saying something like, “I really appreciate your honesty” or “I imagine that was hard for you to share.” They also said that if a conversation becomes unexpectedly emotional, it is okay to take a break—but do let the other person know where you stand. The goal of the conversation should not be to “change the other person’s mind” but to look for ways to add “nuance or dimension to their perspective.” All participants should also be open to learning and widening their own perspective in the process. 

Members of BRIDGE then got to work by using the techniques to model a complex conversation relating to the Israel-Hamas war and its broader implications, including the rise in antisemitic and Islamophobic hate crimes. Defining specific terms such as antisemitism, Islamophobia, and Zionism up front helped ensure a better understanding of what these terms mean and showcased what conversations about complex current events can and should look like. 

To further illustrate this bridging of understanding, Middle School humanities faculty member Eitan Tye, who recently spent a year studying conflict resolution at Tel Aviv University, shared a video entitled “How to Navigate an Israeli/Palestinian Friendship,” which captures his conversation with his close Palestinian friend. Bashar and Eitan met while studying in the same program in Tel Aviv. They formed a bond over the material, growing even closer during several trips they took together. 

As Kravitz shared in recent letters to both Upper and Middle School families, programming around “Engaging Across Differences” will continue throughout the school year in both assemblies and advisories, and additional student-run workshops will continue in the spring. 
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