Part II
E: Dealing with Difficulties

Difficulties will inevitably arise, especially when dealing with sensitive subject matter like human rights. Some problems are unique, but others occur with predictable regularity. Remember that in a genuinely participatory setting, these are not necessarily the facilitator's difficulties alone: in many cases problems can and should be dealt with by the group.

Difficult Issues

As a result of the facilitator's sincere efforts to address participants' concerns, some controversial and sensitive subject matter may emerge. The group may be able to accept all the issues participants bring up. However, the facilitator needs to acknowledge openly that some topics will cause discomfort or offense and seek the group's opinion about how they want to deal with them. In an ideal participatory learning environment, the facilitator is a member of the group, and as such should feel free to express any personal reservations about a topic, just as others are encouraged to do. Participants may decide to have a separate session on the issue, discuss the issue in small groups, or find some other solution. The facilitator may suggest that postponing such topics until they have established mutual trust and understanding.

The important principle here is that the session belongs to the participants, and they should determine what is discussed. The facilitator's role is to keep the discussion relevant to human rights, avoid argumentation, maintain a safe environment for everyone including herself or himself, and provide a nonjudgmental forum for interactive learning.

Difficult Situations

Sometimes facilitators meet resistance to human rights education from school administrators or community leaders on the grounds that the subject matter contradicts and threatens local values and customs.

Facilitators should address these objections directly: acknowledge that human rights necessarily involve conflicts of values and explain that participants will benefit from understanding these conflicts and seeking to resolve them for themselves. Teachers concerned about resistance from administrators should meet with them in advance, share goals and plans for the class, explain about the UN Decade for Human Rights Education (See Part I, "What Is Human Rights Education," p. 7) and the worldwide endorsement of the value of human rights education, and invite administrators to visit a class.

Another difficult situation arises when the participants and the facilitator come from different social or cultural backgrounds. One way facilitators can meet this challenge is by taking the time to explore with participants how human rights values match with many, if not all, of the fundamental values of the their tradition. The key is not to impose but to work together with participants to find common ground. Areas of conflict can become excellent points for discussion and analysis. At the same time, participants need to understand the universality of human rights principles.

Difficult Individuals

Sometimes one individual, either intentionally or unintentionally, obstructs the solidarity and effectiveness of the group and become the facilitator's biggest challenge. Solutions are as varied as individuals, but the following strategies can help.

a) Private Consultation: One method is for the facilitator to talk to the difficult person separate from the group and express concern about the way things are going. Without blaming, the facilitator can tactfully point out ways in which the participant could help to improve the group.

b) Group Rules: Another approach is for the facilitator to acknowledge that the personal dynamics of the group are not working well and to suggest that they draw up a few general rules to improve their interactions (e.g., no one interrupts, all discussions are confidential, everyone's opinion is respected, etc.). Enforcement of these rules becomes everyone's responsibility, and often group pressure suffices to curb the difficult person.

c) Expulsion: A last resort is to ask the person to leave the group. The bad feelings evoked by such a step must be weighed against the bad feelings already created in the group. The facilitator may suggest that the person might join a later group where the blend of personalities might be more harmonious.