Schedule and Course Descriptions for MC 399: Having Difficult Conversations

Seminar Description

Listening – particularly in highly charged conversations – involves a great deal of complexity. Each person in the interaction brings with them a web of stories and standpoints to create what Goodson and Gill call a fusion of horizons (see Figure below) . In this course, we will begin by examining the nature of these stories and their capacity for both harm and good. Then, we will look at how emotions – particularly fear and attachment – interact with the (re)production and (re)vision of stories. Because emotion happens in the body, we will seek to explore the interaction of stories and the body from multiple perspectives, including neurological ones.

Screen Shot 2018-04-18 at 12.00.22 PM.pngFigure: Complicating Goodson and Gill’s (2011) narrative fusion of horizons model by increasing students’ awareness of their embodied standpoints using neurofeedback and mindfulness. Incorporating neurofeedback and mindfulness supports a narrative fusion of horizons by helping students understand the body’s role in co-mediating openness, as well as helping them practice somatic modes of attention (ways of attending to and with the body) conducive to open listening (Person icon made by from

Specifically, we will focus on how fear, attachment, and mindful awareness mediate our construction and perception of the stories as we engage in challenging conversations with others. We will begin this process within the self, examining the neurological and narrative shifts that occur when participants use a technology of the self, neurofeedback. Neurofeedback allows participants to observe and change their brain wave activity from moment to moment.

A type of neurofeedback training called alpha-theta allows participants to examine how mindful they are as they call up stories (autobiographical memories). The goal of alpha-theta is essentially to work with the “malleability of memory,” or as we can conceptualize it, the malleability of narrative. We will develop our own mindfulness to support a similar process in the way that we work with narratives – our own and others. After exploring alpha-theta as a process of working with different parts of ourselves, we will explore how to communicate effectively with others in difficult conversations. In this section, will draw mainly from film examples as case studies.

Seminar Readings


Highlighted Assignments

Mindfulness Component

As part of developing our ability to practice open, self-reflective listening during difficult conversations, we will practice secular mindfulness. This will include using exercises from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Guided Mindfulness Meditation audio CD: the guided body scan and sitting meditation. Mindfulness is a practice of open awareness of the present moment. It requires deliberate practice, as well as attention to the body and breath. The goal is to foster grounded, non-judgmental awareness of the present moment and all that it holds (memories, thoughts of the future, your body, the environment, and other people).

Weekly Journal & Habit Tracker

This course will explore how daily habits and “ways of being” are connected in important ways to how we communicate with others. This includes our embodied level of openness. Based on this premise, this course has a mindfulness component, which can support a more open way of relating to yourself and others while also observing the limitations of your ability to be open while listening.

  • Weekly Journal: The weekly journal is a place for you to reflect on your own formal and informal practices of mindfulness. This may overlap with your reading responses. Since mindfulness is about increasing awareness of whatever is happening in the present moment, you may use this space to write about pretty much anything. You can use whatever medium works best for your reflection (or experiment with a couple different forms).
  • Habit Tracker: Practicing formal and informal mindfulness requires regular practice and discipline: creating and sticking to your intentions for practice. As part developing a practice, you will set your own daily goals for journaling and mindfulness. You will turn in a “habit tracker” document each week.

Final Project

Your final project is a chance for you to reflect on the readings, class discussions, and your own mindfulness practice. It should draw partly from your weekly journal, partly from your reading responses, partly from in-class discussions, and any other aspects of your experience that you find relevant. You should synthesize your learning journey in some form of narrative. In addition to reflecting back on what you’ve learned from the course, your project should also look forward, articulating a manifesto based on key learning moments.

MC 399: Having Difficult Conversations

Student Videos
The following are videos from a reading seminar that I facilitated this spring semester, MC 399: Having Difficult Conversations (view the course schedule and description). Students explored “open listening” as both a social and embodied practice. We anchored our exploration using a narrative perspectives, framing listening as an exchange (and potentially a transformation of) stories. This seminar was also anchored in mindfulness, open, engaged awareness of the the present moment. Students’ videos thus embody both content learned in the course and their experiences synthesizing this content with their own lived experiences & stories.

Project #1: “My Story? Oh. What?”
[vimeo 264162371 w=640 h=360]

In MC 399: Having Difficult Conversations, we framed listening as an exchange of narratives, or stories. We explored how stories, in addition to their emotional contexts, continually inform our perceptions in the present moment.

Brittney’s project acknowledges the ways that narratives are co-constructed. Her video primarily focuses on the fluidity, complexity, and multiplicity of stories. While Andrea’s project (#4) acknowledges the ways that narratives can act as relatively stable forces in our lives, Brittney reminds us of their ever fluid nature (“…how our narratives change!”).

We spent a lot of time in this reading seminar talking about the body, something that we both pay attention to and with. We also talked about the body as something that is encoded with stories. Brittney’s project artfully demonstrated this point (“It’s every sensation and interaction and ancestor that courses through my veins”).

This seminar also included a mindfulness component. We explored different kinds of attention/awareness, including different brain wave states. Brittney’s project, too, captured not only the complexity always available in the present moment, but also that it is “the awareness of [ourselves] that makes [our narratives] come alive.”

Project #2: “A Day in the Anorexic Mind | A Healthy Day”

While titled “Having Difficult Conversations,” this seminar examined the inseparability of our ability to listen to others and our ability to listen to ourselves. Listening was framed as an ability to openly “update” one’s story with new perspectives, a process that can happen when a person is alone as well as during our interactions with others. In terms of brain waves, this process is called “alpha-theta.”

Alpha-theta is essentially when a person has a story and its associated emotional context (associated with the brain wave theta) come up into one’s consciousness, but it is accompanied by a more open form of awareness (associated with brain wave alpha and mindfulness). Alpha-theta neurofeedback training has been used to help individuals cope with traumatic memories by bringing mindful awareness to them (rather than trying to “move past them”).

During our conference, this student described her own alpha-theta moments. Her video also shows how her daily mindfulness practice changed her relationship to the rather immersive narratives associated with eating disorders as well as her body. In her companion manifesto, she writes, “Hello body! I am finally home!”

Project #3: Interactive Photo Collage

Like Brittney’s Project #1 and Andrea’s Project #4 , Rachel’s project highlighted the ways that our stories are intertwined with others. In this project, however, Rachel helped us experience this truth. She printed out a large poster with a series of pictures, and then asked us to write down our responses to the pictures using sticky notes.

As a result, we saw the ways that our narratives and standpoints represent areas of both commonality and differences, both of which are important to acknowledge. While we had covered a modified version of Goodson and Gill’s (2011) Narrative Fusion of Horizons model (see image below), Rachel’s gave us an experience to help us more deeply appreciate that every conversation involves the coming together of multiple webs of meaning.

 Screen Shot 2018-04-18 at 12.00.22 PM.png

Rachel’s project also highlighted something that Royster and Kirsch (2012), in their Feminist Rhetorical Practices, call tacking in and tacking out. They argue that in order to more fully appreciate another person’s perspective, we must practice listening from both up close and far away perspectives. Rachel once again helped us experience tacking in and tacking out through photography. Notice the bottom left pictures of the road. The middle picture, which is actually made mostly of smaller picture of herself, also acts as a metaphor for tacking in and tacking out (while also driving home the point that we are made up of stories).

Project #4: Core Stories 

While stories are constantly changing, we arguably still have a set of core (though never fully stable) narratives (and associated values, beliefs, and opinions) that guide our everyday behavior. Andrea’s project identified and explored the meaning behind what four of her own core stories. While acknowledging how certain experiences can have dramatic effects, Andrea acknowledges the ways that smaller, seemingly insignificant moments simultaneously shape our stories and our lives. She also acknowledges the construction of her core stories as a relational activity.