Tools for Difficult Conversations

In the wake of the 2016 election, Associate Professor Megan Zwart began The Dialogue and Civil Discourse Project at Saint Mary's College. 

“I heard from so many students about their struggles to have conversations about political issues with their families and friends,” she said. “In one class right after the election, a student wished aloud for a class that would focus on helping students have productive dialogue about controversial issues.”

The students in that class brainstormed with Zwart about what this could look like. And the following year, with a grant from Campus Compact, the course began. In this one-credit-hour coursePHIL 291: Dialogue and Civil DiscourseZwart and her students spend each week on a different controversial issue, including abortion, gun rights/regulations, speech on campus, immigration, kneeling for the anthem, cancel culture, and racial justice. Students interrogate their own positions for clarity and coherence, investigate the connections between their views and their experiences, learn the stories of why other students hold the views they do, and consider the role of media bias and disinformation in public discourse. 

Associate Professor Megan Zwart

“Each class starts from the premise that by growing in the virtues of attention, curiosity, empathy and intellectual humility, we can all become better listeners, more careful reasoners, and engaged citizens in democracy,” Zwart said.

Having seen the growth that she and students experienced, Zwart wanted to expand the project for wider reach. Today, with a generous private foundation grant, Saint Mary’s was able to begin a peer leadership program, orientation modules for all first-year students, and campus-wide programming to foster engaged dialogue across campus.

Fractured relationships and unproductive dialogue are obstacles to living well, and make it harder to move closer to truth or understanding. According to Zwart, the best way to improve our skills for productive dialogue is to build ourselves into the kind of people that are attentive, intellectually humble, curious, and empathetic—to grow in the virtues we are most likely to appreciate in friends, partners and mentors. It takes a lifetime to build these habits and dispositions, but we can start flexing these muscles every time we engage with others.

How can we begin building these muscles for better dialogue, and ultimately for transformed living, in our conversations about charged topics? Zwart suggests the following:

Be attentive to the context and the goal for the conversation

  • Consider the context: Ask yourself if you are open to learning something. Is your interlocutor? Social media is often not a good context for these conversations; neither are major family holiday meals. If you are tired, hungry, or emotionally exhausted, it might be better to side step the controversial topics, and say something like: “I’d love to hear your view on that sometime, but for now let’s focus on enjoying our meal.”
  • Think about the goal of the conversation: Aim to learn more about someone else’s view, or to strengthen or clarify your own view. If you enter a discussion with the goal to persuade, you are more likely to become defensive, provoke defensiveness and become frustrated. Debate is a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser, but dialogue allows for everyone to learn something.

Begin from a position of intellectual humility

  • Reflect on what you know and don’t know about a particular topic. How much information do you have on this issue and is it high quality information, i.e. cited in (multiple) reliable sources, that include editors and fact checking? What partisan lens is applied? Seek out the best arguments against your position and consider why you find them unpersuasive.
  • Reflect on opportunities for growth. How can I strengthen my skills or grow in understanding through this conversation? If you are in a difficult conversation in order to make someone else better (by educating or persuading them), it’s more likely to be frustrating. If you are in a conversation to make yourself better, you have a great deal of control over whether or not you succeed. 

Question from a place of curiosity

  • Note defensiveness in yourself when it arises. Curiosity opens people up to learn and take in new information, while defensiveness shuts them off.
  • Turn defensiveness to curiosity. Ask yourself: why am I feeling defensive? What values of mine are being poked here? Consider sharing these insights about the connection between your views and your values with your interlocutor, especially sharing personal experiences that have helped form your view.

Practice empathy in listening

  • Listen to understand rather than just waiting your turn to reply.
  • Ask open ended questions that are motivated by a desire to understand where someone is coming from. For instance, ask: “What experiences have led you to that belief?’ or ‘I’m curious about why you think this…”
  • Try to understand how your interlocutor’s views grow out of their experiences or values. Good listening will enable you to connect these dots. If you just wait your turn to reply, you will miss seeing these connections which aid understanding and help empathy grow.

With good habits, the likelihood of reaching understanding, even without agreement, is greater. And, the more you use them, the more these habits grow. Additionally, approaching dialogue with these strategies encourages you to focus on what you have control over: your responses, values and growth.  

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