The Seven Tuck Ground Rules for Navigating Difficult Discussions

At Tuck, students strive to connect and build trust with their classmates and the community. These seven ground rules help provide the safety of structure so they can be themselves while learning and teaching with others.

When first-year Tuck students begin Tuck Launch in mid-August, they suddenly find themselves immersed in a unique learning environment where they are encouraged to get to know each other on a personal level and, in fact, must work together to achieve their goals.

It is the start of 21 months of trying, failing, trying again, and succeeding, over and over. Academically, this cycle comes with no small amount of difficulty and humility. Nobody likes to put in the work and still be wrong. Socially, the stakes are even higher. Students want to connect with their classmates and the Tuck community, but deep connections don’t happen without difficult conversations—conversations about what’s in your heart and soul, about what you believe, about the experiences that have shaped you. These conversations are difficult because they call on skills of empathy and curiosity and open-mindedness, and they come with the risk of offending someone and hurting their feelings—someone you’re likely to see day after day.

The question is: how can we have these difficult yet important conversations in a way that encourages students to bring their own voice to the table and not be excluded?

Professor Ella L.J. Bell Smith

Tuck has long provided the scaffolding that supports students in their academic learning, through the core and elective curricula, and the co-curricular activities organized by Tuck’s Centers. Last year, the school began building another structure of safe learning, in the form of its Seven Ground Rules for Navigating Difficult Discussions. Tuck introduced the Ground Rules to first-year students in Tuck Launch in 2020. This year, the school refined the Rules and presented them to first-years again, during a session early in Tuck Launch called “Race, Diversity, and Your Life: Now What?”, introduced by Dia Draper, the assistant dean of diversity, equity and inclusion, and taught by Professor Ella L.J. Bell Smith and Dean Matthew Slaughter.

“The goal of the Ground Rules is to make sure students know they can be themselves, be authentic, that there are no right or wrong answers, and that they could ask whatever they wanted and not be fearful of repercussions or policing,” says Bell Smith. “The question is: how can we have these difficult yet important conversations in a way that encourages students to bring their own voice to the table and not be excluded?”

For Slaughter, teaching students to navigate difficult conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion is a central part of Tuck’s mission to develop wise and decisive leaders. “These issues are crucial to good leadership today and in the future,” Slaughter says. “The Ground Rules are designed to foster that confident humility to reach out and take risks in these topics, which takes people from a place of uncertainty and fear and gives them the power to engage.”

“It’s not about perfection, it’s about connection,” adds Draper. “Hopefully, the students will carry the Ground Rules with them to their study rooms, to their private spaces, to their social events, and co-create environments and opportunities that allow them to learn and grow while reducing the fear of conflict.”


The Seven Tuck Ground Rules for Navigating Difficult Discussions


 You are where you are.   Each of you brings to Tuck unique experiences, perspectives, and ideas. No one expects you to have all the answers. Learn to be comfortable with very different experiences, perspectives, and ideas.


 You are here to teach and to learn.   Your goal is to become wise and decisive, as with all parts of Tuck. Great leaders are great teachers, and great teachers are great learners. Strive for a lifelong commitment to cultural learning.


 Everyone teaches and learns.   Tuck’s uniquely immersive learning community depends on the inclusion of every voice. 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.


 Listen more than you talk.   Listening well is a vital part of teaching and learning. Your biggest learnings most often come when your mouth is closed, not open. Allow everyone the chance to speak. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.


 Avoid judging people.   Did you judge when people made mistakes in your math classes? 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.


 Bring empathy, grace, and confidentiality.   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.


 Make it right.  Learning to recover from mistakes is a key leadership skill. If you hurt or offend someone, first strive to understand how and why. If you hurt or offend someone, then take accountability and make amends.