Among the questions asked by my students at the beginning of the semester were the following: “how can you explore the space between two extremes” and “how can you teach the polarized combatants that the best solution may not be as simple as “yes” or “no”?” They had had ample experience with, and wanted to change the pattern of, conversations that quickly degenerate from an exchange of views to insults (“didn’t know you were that stupid . . .”) or identity questions (“didn’t know you were one of them”/”so liberal . . .”/”so reactionary . . .”). Students from other countries were particularly taken aback by this kind of response to a perspective shared from their own experience.
Our classes on dialogue, conflict analysis, and conflict mapping helped the students to answer these questions and to build the skills needed to facilitate the final sessions on gun violence. Students learned and practiced the dialogue skills of reflective listening, reframing, and asking open-ended questions. The students also used the “pie chart” illustration of sources of conflict, “iceberg” chart of levels of conflict, and conflict maps, to analyze in advance where participants were likely to differ, the different language and framings used for different positions, and how that language might be reframed to best support the participants and invite their participation.
As a result of this analysis, the student facilitators were more confident intervening both to support participants by reflective summarizing, and to open conversations by using questions to link related points. They were able to listen and summarize in ways that educated the participants, promoting more productive discussion (e.g, “so freedom of choice is important to you (1st person), and you (2nd person) want freedom to make choices about your child’s classroom.”) In addition, this pre-session analysis helped the facilitators to maintain the dialogue boundaries for the individual sessions (e.g., when responding to a participant who was advocating for a particular solution at an early session: “we are not here tonight to debate solutions, although we are exploring the issues of cost and safety. You have strong concerns on . . .”).
Despite the dialogue training in class, the students who were participating in the discussions (as opposed to facilitating) did, as the discussions heated up, at times fall into more traditional positional framings (e.g., right/wrong; us/them; good/bad). Several also stated their views strongly, using associated rhetorical flourishes (e.g., “who wouldn’t agree? “all the studies show”, “the only valid studies show”, “everyone knows”, only a fool would”). Yet when this happened, most participants failed to take the bait, using both humor, questions, and another dialogue technique — “I statements with invitations” ( example “I have had a different experience, do you mind if I share it?”) — to continue the dialogue.
The “superintendent” was particularly effective at introducing new information in a non-threatening way, using such introductory phrases as “something that troubles me is . . .”, “I’m not sure of the effect that would have on [then naming a cost category like insurance, additional training, amending the collective bargaining agreement, etc.]. At other times he framed his remarks by inviting others to help with a problem that would need solving [“how would we respond to that concern? (referencing a parent’s comment that they would not allow their children in the classroom if the teacher were allowed to carry a gun)]. Other participants also used phrasing that drew others into agreement including an observation that “we don’t want to be an experiment” and a question: “if we’re going to have to raise money, what is the best way to spend it?”
Through this process the students were able to directly experience how responsive phrasing that demonstrates respect and care for the speaker, leads to better listening and understanding for all participants, and ultimately to more informed choices by the group.