Democracy depends on dialog
Divisiveness in the U.S. has reached a boiling point fueled by a toxic mix of charged emotions, knee-jerk reactions, uninformed opinions, and instant communication. The hard work of becoming informed as the basis of productive dialog is a dying art.
Schools are an obvious platform for engaging students – future citizens – in thoughtful deliberation. But many teachers shy away from topics deemed “controversial” out of both fear and misconception: The fear of being labeled political, and the misconception that teaching about an issue is the same as taking a side. Students lose, and so does society. Our democracy can’t thrive when critical analysis is demonized.
But effective teaching requires much more than throwing down a topic and letting people ‘debate’ it. Too often, this approach turns into a heated, emotional exchanged of unexamined views – otherwise known as an argument. Forming credible opinions isn’t about just feelings; we must all analyze facts, evidence, and assumptions before cementing our decisions. Developing these skills moves discussions away from reactivity and towards thoughtful deliberation. That said, we can’t discount emotion, especially when there are valid reasons for people’s feelings. Rather, we need to give people skills to get to the source of emotional reactions and make sense of them.
Here are some of the facilitation approaches I’ve found to be effective in my own work as an educator:
1. Lay the foundation with norms.
Regardless of the topic, discussions are likely to be more effective when the basic ground rules are established. Here are some common norms:
Have people speak for themselves only, using “I” statements.
Don’t ask one person to speak for everyone in their demographic, i.e., “What do your people think about . . .?”
Use questions to clarify confusion: Can you help me understand . . . . I always thought that . . . , but now I’m hearing . . . .
2. Anchor discussions in shared values
Democratic principles such as justice and equal opportunity provide a strong foundation for thorny discussions. Paired with a commitment to intellectual honesty, these values provide a measuring stick to assess policies, decisions, issues, and their impacts on everyone. Questions include,
What evidence do we have that this decision/policy supports equal opportunity for all?
Who is impacted by this? Whose perspectives should we hear?
Are the benefits and negative consequences fairly distributed?
3. Model analysis skills
Strong facilitation helps people uncover the basis for their beliefs; evaluate evidence; and differentiate between opinions, anecdotes, and verifiable patterns. (This applied to teachers as well, especially if they’ve never been asked to truthfully examine their own assumptions.) Questions such as these can support this process:
What can we conclude from the evidence we have? What other information do we need?
What in your experience leads you to this conclusion?
What are other perspectives we need to hear?
4. Hold people accountable.
An open discussion doesn’t mean that anything goes. People need to understand the impacts of their actions. Here are strategies to help people do so:
Respond to inappropriate behavior by 1) describing impacts (When I hear that, I feel/think/wonder _____) and 2) seeking understanding (What in your experiences lead you to say that?).
Invite thinking about how behaviors may be received and interpreted differently than intended. “When you say X, people may hear it as Y. Is that what you intended?”
If person A dismisses or denies person B’s experiences, acknowledge A’s position, but challenge A to identify the blockages: I understand this has not happened to you, but what would it mean if [this injustice] was a reality for others?
As another election cycle looms, we have both an obligation and an opportunity to strengthen the skills that support a healthy democracy.
Looking for more ideas? I invite you to contact me.