Dialogue Blocker Activity

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Framing Material


This activity is designed to help students recognize common dialogue blockers, why people use them, and to become more aware of how they inhibit important conversations. If the instructor chooses, this activity can also be used to construct a list of discussion ground rules for the class to agree to follow.



  • To help students recognize common dialogue blockers and how they impact conversation both online and in the classroom
  • To encourage introspection concerning why dialogue blockers are used
  • To guide students in developing a list of ground rules that are supportive of thoughtful dialogue and inclusivity



This activity can be done at any point in the term but is especially useful in the first few class periods as a tool for establishing dialogue norms that will support an inclusive learning community.



Students may feel defensive in this activity and may defend the use of dialogue blockers. In the discussion of the reading “Post Mortem: A Conversation Gone Wrong,” they may exhibit hostility toward the Black Woman and protectiveness over the white participants. As the discussion facilitator, you may need to redirect the conversation. Some suggestions for how to do that are imbedded in the discussion guide below. You might also press them gently on their defensiveness or sympathy with the white participants.  


Dialogue Blocker Activity




Highlighters (1 for every two students)

Writing implements (1 for every two students)

Copies of “Post Mortem: A Conversation Gone Wrong”

Copies of “Common Dialogue Blockers”


  1. Reading: Have students read “Post Mortem: A Conversation Gone Wrong” in advance of class. While the post is too long for them to read during class, you might choose to excerpt it for them and have them read or re-read selected passages during class time.


You may need to bring to their attention that, in the transcript, the original conversation is in regular text, and the annotations providing commentary and analysis are in italics. Tell them that they will need to bring printed copies they can write on for the next class. https://healingfromwhiteness.blogspot.ca/2017/05/post-mortem-conversation-gone-wrong.html?m=1


  1. Writing: Some students may have defensive responses to this piece, or they may feel inclined to side with one or more parties in the transcribed conversation. You might have them write a response in preparation for class or as a writing activity to get class started to help them begin to process the piece. Some prompts might include:
  • What was your initial reaction to “Post Mortem: A Conversation Gone Wrong?” Did you feel defensive? Validated? Sympathetic? Were there specific passages that caused you to have a strong reaction?
  • Recall a time when you heard, saw, or took part in a similar conversation to the one transcribed in “Post Mortem: A Conversation Gone Wrong.” How was it contextually similar or different? Why do you think the patterns we can observe in this conversation are so common?
  • The transcribed conversation is about white privilege, as is indicated by the original meme the commenters are responding to. Pick one moment when the conversation is diverted away from this primary topic (there are many to choose from). What is the conversation diverted to and how? What is the effect? Is this a strategy of topic-changing you’ve seen before?

Dialogue blockers

  1. Project or hand out copies of the Common Dialogue Blockers [add link when available].
  2. Go through the blockers and the ways of responding with them.
  3. Have students divide into groups (the smaller the better), and pass out highlighters, writing implements, and the “Post Mortem” piece if students didn’t bring copies.
  4. Give students instructions: “Each group will be searching for common dialogue blockers in ‘Post Mortem: A Conversation Gone Wrong.’ Use the highlighter to mark where in ‘Post Mortem’ a dialogue blocker is used. Write in margins which blocker it is, using the Common Dialogue Blockers sheet to help you. If there are any dialogue blockers you notice that don’t correspond to the blockers listed on the sheet, mark those with a star. Do this on two copies of ‘Post Mortem’ because you’ll need to hand one in to me and keep the other for discussion, so each group should have two scribes. The group that finds the most blockers will get [low stakes prize, such as 1 extra credit point]. You have [5-10 minutes, depending on time you want them to spend on it] to find as many as you can. Be sure to write your group member names on the top of your ‘Post Mortem’ pages that you’ll hand in to me.”
  5. Collect one copy from each group of the “Post Mortem” pages they marked up to be evaluated later.
  6. Project a copy of ‘Post Mortem’ on the overhead. Starting from the beginning, ask the students, “What is the first blocker you found?” and “What is the next blocker you found?” Ask them to elaborate on how they determined which type of blocker it was if it’s not immediately clear. **Note: If the students identify the Black Woman’s comments as conversation blockers, put pressure on that. Because the original conversation is about white privilege, her comments may be blocking the conversation the white men want to have, but contextually she is redirecting the conversation back to white privilege.
  7. Discussion Questions:


  • Why were some of the speakers so resistant to talking about white privilege? What motivations were served by their blocking the conversation?
  • In what ways were some of the speakers resistant to the conversation being blocked? What strategies do they use to try to redirect the conversation back to white privilege?
  • What is the effect of the use of the dialogue blockers?


Ground Rules Discussion

“These dialogue blockers occur all the time online, but they also occur in the classroom. Sometimes they are voiced, and sometimes we say them to ourselves as an excuse for checking-out of a challenging conversation. And just like in “Post Mortem,” dialogue blockers in the classroom inhibit the critical discussion of important issues. If we were to create a set of ground rules that would have helped this conversation and conversations like it go better, what would they be?”

Note on the board ground rules that students suggest. If their suggestions are focused on the “Post Mortem” piece, direct them to think about how conversations like this may play out in the classroom. For example: “I’ve found that when conversations like these play out verbally, people are often so quick to respond that I’m not sure they took time to think about what they were saying or why they felt so defensive. What kind of ground rules can you think of that might address that problem?”

**Note: The students may want to create ground rules that address the comments of Black Woman. Within reason, it’s okay to recognize those rules as important. For example, in the classroom, “Preach it, White Dudes” would probably increase defensiveness and could result in an already difficult conversation becoming more difficult. Try to balance those rules with recognition of why the Black Woman responds the way she does. For example: “I think you might be right that her comment probably makes the white men feel attacked and defensive (though they were already defensive before she entered the conversation). Since she responds that way out of exhaustion and frustration with how often white men dismiss their privilege, can you think of a discussion ground rule that would help create conditions in which she wouldn’t have to take on this emotional weight?”