Critical Conversations

Critical Conversations Invitation

​Critical conversations are those in which power dynamics in social context are illuminated, substantively examined in the moment and subsequently reflected upon in order to produce change—personal, systemic, institutional. The School for Social Work has embarked on training faculty to facilitate critical conversations, a model developed by Professors Hye-Kyung Kang and Peggy O'Neill in 2015. Our larger goal is to build the capacity of faculty, staff and students to facilitate critical conversations. This is a multi-year project. 

Year 1 (2016-2017):
26 faculty participated in a pilot evaluation of the training on the Critical Conversations Model. Participants grew in self efficacy across key aspects of the model, particularly in identifying, naming and discussion critical issues of structural, historical and contemporary forces of oppression as they are played out interpersonally in the classroom.

Year 2 (2017-2018):
​More than 100 faculty, faculty field advisers and field instructors have been trained​ in the CC model. Efforts to support faculty to engage the Critical Conversation Model in classrooms and beyond continue to be available​. 

Year 3 (2018-2019):
Faculty training in the CC model is being offered each term this summer (2018). Please sign up for a "Booster" session if you have been trained. If you are new to the model, please sign up for the full training. As part of the multi-year plan we are launching an elective for students entitled Constructing Critical Conversations in a Social Justice Paradigm. Students will learn and practice the model as participants and facilitators.​

What is the Critical Conversations (CC) Model?

  • A model for facilitating conversations that surface conflicting ideas related to the understanding and experience of oppression and structural inequalities that often activate tension.

  • ​When facilitated effectively, these conversations can produce fruitful dialogue that supports multiple perspectives and critical analysis.


  • Encourage deeper awareness of power, privilege, structural inequities and the immediate impact these have on the learning environment and to produce change in the moment.

  • Practice critical consciousness using tools of reflexivity and critical reflection.

  • Engage ambiguity to allow participants to move through conflict/tension toward greater understanding of self and others—creating change.

Skills that are Developed

The CC model builds on clinical interviewing skills and group facilitation skills including but not limited to:

  • Reflective listening

  • Establishing group agreements/guidelines

  • Cultivating mutual responsibility

  • Attending simultaneously to content and process

  • Attending to use of self

  • Attuning to intersubjectivity

  • Attending to timing, pace, verbalizations and silence

Opportunities to engage a critical conversation in a classroom include, but are not limited to:

  • Critical incident is reverberating among students and faculty that surfaces issues related to oppression and social injustice.

  • Immediate conflict occurs between students within current group (e.g., classroom);

  • Conflict between students and faculty and/or administration;

  • Incident within the institution (student body, faculty, administration) occurs;

  • Conflict between the institution and the local community;

  • Content of the course or current events in the local community, national, international and/or global society evoke tension around issues of oppression, social identities, intersectionality, power and privilege;

  • Content of the course generates apparent avoidance of direct attention to aforementioned issues in the classroom

Steps for Using the CC Model

Deciding— Not if, but when and how…

Tune in—Reflect on one's own social identities and postitionality in relation to group membership, content and context

Build the scaffold—Acknowledge the opportunity to engage in critical conversation, identify hopes and concerns and determine the time frame for the conversation, knowing that such conversations are rarely finished.

Develop shared language—Identify guidelines for the conversation. Decide on the focus of the conversation —recognize that this at times becomes the focus of the conversation.

Dive into the conversation—As the conversation is developing, notice, reflect, name and discuss dimensions of power present in the dynamics and consider how this can lead to informed action

  • How does the content and context affect interaction in the moment?

  • What power dynamics do you notice in the group?

  • What assumptions might be taken for granted?

  • What larger societal and structural power dynamics are implicated and active in current interactions?

Transition forward—Honor the contributions of all participants and express appreciation. Acknowledge the on-going nature of the conversation and mark the end of the conversation. Do not debrief the conversation at this time.

Reflect—Take the time to reflect on your feelings, thoughts, and learning (own and others). Consider what you might do differently. Identify and engage a way to process/debrief the critical conversation for yourself.

Prepared by Peggy O'Neill
April 28, 2016

Critical Conversations model ©2015 Hye-Kyung Kang and Peggy O'Neill

Read More:

Critical Conversations Teaching Note

Journal for Social Work Education (2018)