Lesson 5: Strategies for Addressing Harm

5.1 Intervening in Difficult Conversations

Sometimes in a dialogue space, we find ourselves in need of intervening in conversations as they unfold. Someone may be saying something wrong, hurtful, or uncomfortable in these spaces, and it is the responsibility of the facilitator to intervene in the moment. As a facilitator, there are a few important things to keep in mind when introducing race-based topics into the classroom including:

  • Your classroom space is contextualised within the larger national, local, and campus context. Events that happen in those spaces impact the events of your own classroom regardless of if you intentionally invite them in.
  • Similarly, power dynamics in each of those spheres are carried into your classroom space, and the students in your space may have varying levels of understanding and awareness of those dynamics, their origins, and the contemporary legacies of historical oppressions.
  • There is always an experience being centered in dialogs or readings. It can be hardest to see the ways that a conversation may center the dominant identity because that is so often the default. It is represented so often that it may begin to become invisible.

In addition to the above considerations of inter- or intra- group power dynamics, it may be helpful as well to consider the role that social threat and reward can play in the classroom setting.

5.2 SCARF Model of Threat and Reward

The SCARF Model offers us one potentially helpful way of considering how we both give and receive feedback in a social context. It posits that the brain reacts to social threats and rewards in ways similar to how we react to physical threats and rewards in our neurobiological responses. When a threat response is activated, it prompts us to move away from the stimuli in question, while a reward response prompts us to move toward it. Moving away and toward may look different depending on other factors, like the power dynamics mentioned above.

SCARF Model of Social Threats and Rewards. Infographic which has a circle in the middle with the SCARF acronym spelled out: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness; an orange arrow pointing to the left that says: AWAY Threat Response; and a green arrow pointing to the right that says: TOWARD Reward Response

Our brains tag different experiences and stimuli in five domains of social life as good or bad, as potential rewards or threats, and this impacts how we act when presented with them again. The five domains the SCARF Model operates on are Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relevance, and Fairness. When we interrupt a stimuli to be a threat or reward to those five domains, it can activate a powerful response to approach or avoid.

Domain Definition
Status Status connects back to our perceived relative importance in relation to others. This can be formal and hierarchical, think the pecking order, ranking, or seniority in a particular group. It can also be informal–winning a game or argument, feeling included, or being publicly criticized can all prompt a response to a status-based stimuli
Certainty Certainty connects back to our brain’s ability to recognize patterns. The brain uses patterns to predict in order to use fewer resources in day-to-day life. Think about the act of walking down a frequently used set of stairs. You’re likely to hardly even notice the steps as your body is moving unless something feels off. If the stairs look or feel slick or abnormally unsteady, you’re likely to take immediate notice in part because your brain has processed a deviation from the pre-established pattern. Social situations can work in much the same way; when a change in dynamic, pattern, or predictability occurs, our brains take notice.
Autonomy Autonomy represents the level of control we may have over our environments and selves. Simply put, it boils down to choice. Stimuli that we have little or no control over are more likely to prompt a stress response in the body. This can look as simple as providing choices in topic or order of topics in the classroom or presenting different options for managing conflict should it arise.
Relatedness Relatedness looks at familiarity: Do we perceive the person or people we’re interacting with to be a member of our community or an outside to the community? When a person is regarded as an outsider, we’re more likely to respond to them as a threat. Relatedness really boils down to trust and how we’ve built trust as a classroom community. It can be challenging to deactivate a threat to relatedness in the moment, though attempting to find commonalities can help.
Fairness Fairness in the world, our interactions, and our exchanges with others can be a powerful motivator in social contexts. Unfairness can prompt a very strong threat response when present and can look like differences in resources or preferential treatment.

SCARF in the Classroom

The SCARF Model can help us think through classroom interactions in dialogue settings as well as potentially understand our reactions and others better. A student who perceives public feedback as a threat to their status may seek to move away from the interaction. A student who expected this class not to include discussion may need time to adjust and establish a level of certainty for how dialogue will look. A student who feels they are being unfairly attacked may lash out in other ways in the classroom space.

How a threat response looks will change for different individuals as well as what prompts a threat response. It is important to keep in mind, however, that power dynamics deeply impact how a threat response may appear. If one is operating from a position of power, the way a faculty, instructor, or TA may, and they seek to move away from a threatening stimulus, there are a variety of avenues open to them to do so. They may have the ability to completely terminate the discussion and move on to the next topic. They may be able to limit the amount of discussion in the remainder of the course, or they may simply be less frequently challenged due to their position in the classroom community. A person who is not operating from the same position of power is unlikely to have all of the same avenues open to them. They may not have the ability to terminate a conversation or limit future discussion. A student who is seeking to move away from a threatening stimulus may disengage from the class, stop talking in discussion, stop coming to class, or ignore the work.

5.3 Responding with the CLARA Method

There are many different ways of responding to questions, feedback, or pushback in the classroom space. While it would be satisfying to introduce any of them as a one-size-fits-all approach to de-escalation, that is unfortunately not the reality of responding to tense classroom moments. Instead, think of methods of response as starting points for finding a way that works for you and the situation you’re in.

The CLARA Method is an adaptation of the CLARA method for non-violent response. It is a five-step approach that helps individuals collect their thoughts and initiate resolution in a productive way. You may also be familiar with the CALM method, which asks mediators to clarify the issue, address the real problem, listen to the other side, and manage your way to a solution.

Whichever model you choose, remember to address the topic at hand rather than the individual and try to use I-statements to frame your discussion.

CLARA Method Steps

Many of us, when we feel threatened, attacked, or “put on the spot,” need to internally calm and center ourselves before we can honestly be engaged in listening.

In a debate, when you’re listening to your opponent, you listen until they get their facts completely wrong, and you can use the real facts to make a fool of them. Instead, in CLARA, listen until you hear the moral principle that they’re speaking from or a feeling or experience that you share. Try to understand what lies at the core of the questions: the fear, the uncertainty, the anger, the frustration, the truth offered by the person talking to you. What might their voice inflection or emotional state tell you? What assumptions might their question demonstrate? If you know the person, this may help you answer these questions, but it’s still important to listen carefully.

What do they really want to know? What is legitimate? If you believe that they don’t really want to know anything but are just attacking you, consider what part of their question might be considered reasonable by others in the audience.?

It’s also important to listen to what the person is actually saying. In trying to understand what might be behind the question or comment, we don’t want to miss what the person literally said.

This is the step we don’t usually think about in a conscious way. Express the connection that you found in what you listened to, whether it’s a feeling, an experience, or a principle that you have in common with the other person. Affirm whatever you can find in their question or statement(s) that represents a reasonable issue or a real fear.

If you can’t find anything (and we’ll help you get better at finding something), there are other ways to affirm. The exact words don’t matter; the important part is to convey the message that you’re not going to attack or hurt the other person and that you know that they have as much integrity as you do.

To actually be affirming, this step must be genuine, rather than “sweet” or “slick” talking. It’s also generally best to speak spontaneously from the heart rather than to develop “pat” answers. Share yourself. Affirming is not a natural process for many of us, but it gets easier with practice.

We often start here. Wait. Listen. Affirm. Debaters, politicians, and sometimes the rest of us often avoid answering the question that was asked and answer a different question in order to stay in control of the situation, not lose the debate, etc. Instead, in CLARA, answer the question. Respond to the issue the person raised. If you agree with them, say that too, even if it feels like you’re giving up some ground. By doing this, you’re conveying the message that you’re not afraid of the other person and that their questions and concerns deserve to be taken seriously.

If you don’t know the answer, say so. Refer them to other sources if you have some or tell them you’ll find out the answer if that seems appropriate. Sometimes it seems that the person does not really want information but is simply trying to fluster you or attack you. Reacting with respect rather than defensiveness or anger is important; it shows respect when a question or statement of this nature is addressed rather than “blown off.”

Personal insights and experiences often reach people in a way that abstract facts do not.

Step five gives you a chance to share additional information that you want to give the person. It may help the other person or the audience to consider the issue in a new light or redirect the discussion in a more positive direction. This is a good time to state whatever facts are relevant to the questions the person asked. This may involve correcting any mistaken facts they mentioned; you can do this now because now that you’ve made a heart connection, the other person is probably more open to hearing your facts than they would have been if you had started there.

Some other possibilities include offering resources (such as books, organizations, or specific people) or adding a personal anecdote. There is simply no one recipe for success as a peace team.

One cup of interpositioning mixed in with equal amounts of CLARA and a pinch of modeling is simply not the way it works. We each bring our gifts and limits to the field, and what works for one person may not work as well for someone else. Flexibility and creativity are the keys!

5.4 Bias Response

Should an incident occur in your classroom, you have a few options for moving forward. Departments like the Office of Inclusion Education can provide training or other education to your classroom community. In the event of a large scale or particularly egregious incident, listening sessions or department level consultations may also be appropriate. Your college may provide such resources as well as the Office of Inclusion Education.

The Dean of Students Office also provides support for bias incidents in the form of their Bias Reporting Form. The Bias Reporting Form allows for outreach for involved parties in order to offer support and resources. While primarily used by students, faculty, and staff, occasionally, community members are also able to report a bias incident when it occurs. Reporting can be attached to a person or anonymous if the reporter would prefer. Rather than a punitive process, the Bias Reporting Form can be thought of as a possible first step toward outreach to harmed parties as well as a measure of campus climate.


The bias form largely leaves it up to the individual to determine if they believe a bias incident has occurred. Below is the official university definition of a bias incident:

Single or Multiple Acts toward an individual, group, or their property that are so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that they create an unreasonably intimidating, hostile, or offensive work, learning, or program environment, and that one could reasonably conclude are based upon actual or perceived age, race, color, creed, religion, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, national origin, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation, political affiliation, marital status, spirituality, cultural, socio-economic status, or any combination of these or other related factors.

This can include things like microaggressions, slurs, degrading language, intimidation, and harassment. [2]

To learn more about bias reporting, visit the Dean of Students Office website.

Reflective Question

To align with the iterative nature of learning on this topic, below is a reflective question to consider how this content applies to your current or future practice.

Consider the full content of this micro-course:

  • What are specific pieces that stand out to you as relevant to your own classroom practice?
  • How might you apply different strategies for addressing harm should it arise?


[1] “LARA” materials copyright 1993 Love Makes a Family, Inc. Some materials adapted by Holly Ferise, 1997, and by American Friends Service Committee, 1998.

[2] University of Wisconsin-Madison. (n.d.) Dean of Students Office. Retrieved from: “https://doso.students.wisc.edu/report-an-issue/bias-or-hate-reporting/”