Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

If a hot moment arises, acknowledge it

As an instructor, be vigilant about the comments that may arise during discussion. Research has shown that students will take their cues from the instructor about how to react to a hot moment or difficult dialogue – if the instructor ignores it, it can further marginalize minority students and squander an opportunity to dispel stereotypes and promote mutual understanding (Huston & DiPietro, 2007; Sue et al., 2009; Bergom et al., 2011). There are many ways to respond to a hot moment, based on the context and your personal preference.

Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Take a deep breath: collect your thoughts before responding.
  2. Acknowledge: know and recognize that the other person’s perspective is their reality and truth.
  3. Inquire: Give students the benefit of the doubt. First, ask the student to clarify, elaborate, or further explain. This will give you more information about where they are coming from, and may also help the speaker to become aware of what they are saying.
    • “Could you please say more about that?”
    • “Can you elaborate on your point?”
    • “It sounds like you have a strong opinion about this. Could you please tell me why?”
    • “What is it about this that concerns you the most?”
  4. Reframe: Create a different way or perspective from which to view at the situation.
    • “Could there be another way to look at this?”
    • “Let’s reframe this to explore other perspectives/interpretations. Consider for a moment that…  What if...?”
    • “I’m wondering what message this is sending and how it’s being received. Do you think you would have said this/drawn this conclusion if…”
  5. Identify: Directly name or articulate what is problematic about the student comment. Calmly and politely explain which specific words or phrases you experienced as disrespectful (or that someone else might have). Use an “I” statement to express feelings, as appropriate, rather than commenting on or labeling the speaker.
    • “Saying ___ often comes up in popular culture. Some might find it problematic because of ___”
    • “When you said X, I felt like Y. In the future, please…”
    • “This seems like a good time to revisit and remind ourselves about the guidelines for discussion that we agreed upon as class.”
  6. Diffuse to allow productive re-engagement: Sometimes, a hot moment can get out of control.
    • Ask students’ to pause and write individually for moment about what just happened and how they feel about it.
    • Use this time as an opportunity to formulate a strategy for re-engaging the hot moment in a productive, inclusive way.
    • Remind your students which discussion guidelines are relevant to the situation.
  7. Revisit: Sometimes an instructor is caught by surprise, misses an opportunity, or wishes they could have a do-over in response to a microaggression or “hot moment”. Even if the moment has passed, it’s ok to go back and address it later in class. Research indicates that an unaddressed microaggression can leave just as much of a negative impact as the microaggression itself.
    • “I want to go back to something that was brought up in our class.”
    • “Let’s rewind ___ minutes.”
    • “I think it would be worthwhile to revisit something that happened ____.”
  8. Check in: in person, talk with the targeted student(s) after class, ideally in person or over email. Let them know that you value their experiences and perspective, and see if they have any suggestions about how to better support them in class.


Bergom, I., Wright, M. C., Brown, M. K., & Brooks, M. (2011). Promoting college student development through collaborative learning: A case study of hevruta. About campus, 15(6), 19-25

Burton, S., & Furr, S. (2014). Conflict in multicultural classes: Approaches to resolving difficult dialogues. Counselor Education And Supervision, 53(2), 97-110

Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. In D. R. Robertson & L. B. Nilson (Eds.) To Improve the Academy. Vol 25. Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development (pp. 207-224). Bolton, MA: Anker.

Sue, D. W., Lin, A. I., Torino, G. C., Capodilupo, C. M., & Rivera, D. P. (2009). Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues on race in the classroom. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(2), 183-190.

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