Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Trainer Insights

Three Tips for Navigating Awkward Classroom Comments

You’re standing there in front of a class full of fellow employees. For the last several hours, you’ve been doing a fantastic job facilitating Crucial Conversations. There is safety in the room. Learners are readily participating and sharing insights. And then one participant shares something offensive, weird, or just plain wrong, and you aren’t quite sure how to respond.

Does this scenario sound familiar? We’ve all been there. You never know what people will say, and while that makes facilitating exhilarating, it also requires expertise to respond in the moment. Here are three skills that have helped me navigate some very crucial moments in training.

Focus on what you really want. Just like when a conversation turns crucial, I stop myself and ask, “What do I really want?” The answer is almost always the same: I want to create psychological safety for everyone in the room as they learn. That means I want to make and keep it safe for the person with the off-the-wall comment, and I also want to keep it safe for everyone else. If someone makes an offensive comment that sucks safety out of the room, I need to balance the needs of that learner with all the other learners when I address the comment. Letting it go is not an option, but neither is jeopardizing psychological safety. So I focus on what I want: creating psychological safety for every learner.

Refuse the Fool’s Choice. When we are put on the spot and feel uncomfortable, it’s easy to think we have only two options: fight or flight. In a classroom, that choice looks like, “I can be honest and tell them what I really think (fight) or I can be kind and pretend this didn’t happen (flight).” We call this binary thinking the Fool’s Choice. Acknowledge the pressure to make such a choice—and then look it in the face and say no. You can be both honest and kind, both respectful and candid.

Respond with ABC. This is my go-to framework for those moments that catch me off guard. I carry it my head and have it ready at all times. When responding to comments in a class, think A (Agree), B (Build), C (Compare). Here is how it works:

Agree. If someone makes a comment you agree with, agree and leave it there. As facilitators we tend to comment on every comment, which doubles the length of the course. Fight the tendency to do the talking. If you agree with the comment, say something like, “Great comment. I agree. Other comments?” and keep the discussion rolling.

Build. If someone makes a comment that is, say, 75% on point but just a little bit off, build on it. When you build, you affirm what’s good about the idea (think of that as the foundation) and then add nuance. This sounds like, “I agree with what you said about the need for safety in a conversation, and I’d like to build on that. I think it is also key to…”

Compare. Agreeing and building seem easy, right? They work when the comment you’re responding to is mostly on point. But how do you tell someone in front of a class that their comment is flat-out wrong? Compare.

When comparing, you first acknowledge the comment that has been made without dismissing it. Then you highlight a different way of thinking and ask people to compare the two perspectives. It sounds like, “That is an interesting point of view. I have always thought of it differently. I have thought… What do you all think about this?”

When comparing, make sure to invite the entire group into the comparison. Inevitably you’ll get the support you need from the group, and the group will steer the discussion back on track. When you compare, you create space for different ideas and give people an opportunity to evaluate those ideas.

I love facilitating groups of diverse thinkers. It keeps me on my toes. Having a mental model to fall back on when I am caught off guard has been the key to navigating many crucial learning moments.

Develop Your Crucial Skills

Image for

What's Your Style Under Stress?

Discover your dialogue strengths and weaknesses with this short assessment.

Take Assessment

Image for

Subscribe Now

Subscribe to the newsletter and get our best insights and tips every Wednesday.


Image for

Ask a Question

From stubborn habits to difficult people to monumental changes, we can help.

Ask a Question

1 thought

  1. Jenna Jones, CVA

    Easy as A,B, C – just like the Jackson 5 sang.

    Thanks for this framework. It allows the person to save face and models kindness and diplomacy to the other trainees.

Leave a Reply

Get your copies
The ideas and insights expressed on Crucial Skills hail from five New York Times bestsellers.


Take advantage of our free, award-winning newsletter—delivered straight to your inbox