Best Practice: Encouraging Difficult Conversations Among MBA Students

Dartmouth Tuck Dean Matthew Slaughter

In an era defined by deep polarization on political, moral and social issues, how do you as a leader maintain the long-standing culture of a university as a place to discuss and debate issues from all perspectives?

Matt Slaughter, dean of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, speaking at Rutgers Business School’s innovations conference in October, offers some savvy advice. Since 2020, Tuck has been teaching first-year MBA students seven ground rules for navigating difficult discussions. The idea came out of a realization that students were often challenged to express honest views in classrooms on highly sensitive issues.

“Students come eager to engage on questions of climate and race and other controversial issues,” says Slaughter. “But they do not know how to engage in difficult conversations so there is a reluctance to engage. The corrosion of trust between Republicans and Democrats in this country is shocking. Students have told me they didn’t feel comfortable asking someone why they voted for and support Trump or how they really feel about the topic of reparations.”


To break the ice on those conversations, the school came up with seven principles on how to engage: on challenging issues. “It’s not debits and credits or global economics, but once you give people that psychological safety then people will engage,” adds Slaughter.

The guidelines include the statement: “Do not be afraid to respectfully challenge one another by asking questions. Try to criticize the idea, not the individual. Take good care of yourself in the moment: it is okay to delay or exit a discussion”

The principles advise students to “bring empathy, grace, and confidentiality” to challenging discussions. “Tuck’s uniquely immersive learning community depends on everyone contributing to respect and to safety. Assume positive intent. The deepest learning often comes from making mistakes.”

It also opens the door to forgive classmates for mistakes. “Did you judge when people made mistakes in your math classes?.” one guideline asks. “Does it make sense to judge them when they are striving to learn about deeper issues? Avoid assumptions about individuals based on generalizations about groups. Avoid speculation, inflammatory language, and blame.”

Tuck School of Business

Seven ground rules to navigate challenging conversations at the Tuck School of Business


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