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Let’s Talk

Let’s Talk

Thomas M. Colombus May 18, 2018

Some people are putting aside talking just to vent their feelings, to rally the like-minded, to persuade others they must agree with them. Others are still talking. But they are also listening. And they are trying to understand.

We offer on these pages four conversations on dialogue. It is more than talk. It is more than being nice. And it is hard.

Understanding and being understood

The 1960s brought us fashion fads: bell bottom pants and paisley shirts and go-go boots. Many of the fads faded.

The same time also saw us as a divided nation on issues including the Vietnam War, race relations and women’s rights. Many people proposed replacing strife in the streets with nonviolent interaction. They “began to see dialogue as a means by which we should communicate with each other,” according to a chapter in the UD textbook now used in Communication 100: Principles of Oral Communication.

Dialogue has existed as long as language. But in the 1960s it took on a new dimension.

“Dialogue wasn’t just seen as a technique for communication,” reads the UD book chapter written by Jon Hess, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “It was seen as an ethical requirement.”

But within a decade or so, such interest passed like just another fad. Perhaps too much was expected. Some momentous laws were passed. Some people bonded. But an age of peace and love did not come upon us. Maybe dialogue became viewed as just so much holding hands, singing “Kumbaya” and hoping for the best.

'You can't have good dialogue if you avoid conflict. If you avoid it, you can't pursue truth.'

Whatever the case, when UD’s new general education curriculum, the Common Academic Program, was introduced, the courses in the Faith Traditions element of it required students to enter into dialogue. Kelly Johnson, associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies, was not impressed.

I thought it soft intellectually,” she said. “I saw its focus being on niceness and acceptance and protecting feelings, not on the pursuit of truth."

Her approach in class had been structured debate.

“I told my students,” she said, “‘I don’t want to hear you say that both sides made good points. I want to know which author wins.’

“We had a lot of fun."

To her, a great value of debate is that debate is active learning and thus promotes retention.
And her academic training used critique and debate. Given that background, she said, “I had no idea how to do dialogue.”

So she went to see Joe Valenzano, now chair of the Department of Communication. Valenzano was the first director of the revised Communication 100 course, which has dialogue as one of its components.

The revision of the first-year communication course had not occurred in a vacuum. Hess recalls that, when in 2008 he came to UD to be chair of the communication department, “the University did not want to continue the traditional oral communication course.”

So a group of communication faculty members talked to departments across campus, asking them what their students needed. They found three results, according to Hess. The STEM areas wanted students to be able to explain complex ideas to others. Humanities and business departments wanted students to be able to make a persuasive argument as well as be able to critique one — skills learned in debate.

And, universitywide, faculty wanted students to be able to engage in dialogue with people whose perspectives are different from their own.

The course, in its third full year, is now directed by Jason Combs, a lecturer in the communication department. The course includes among its goals developing in students the abilities that other departments had desired:

Explaining material to non-experts. “Learning how,” Combs said, “to build a bridge between a person with expert knowledge and a person without it.”

Advocating, persuading. “How to get someone to adopt your ideas. The traditional way of doing this was speaking to an audience.”

Dialoguing. “How to engage in communication with people with different ideas — with the goal, not of convincing them, but of understanding each other.”

And, important in the developing of all these abilities, is listening.

Students must learn,” Combs said, “how to engage in critical analysis, how to think quickly.”

This past term, Combs’ students returned from Thanksgiving full of turkey, cold viruses, upcoming exam anxiety and the Communication 100 unit on dialogue.

Earlier in the term students in the class learned how to persuade others; they had made speeches advocating a position. The first class after Thanksgiving, students began to prepare for engaging in dialogue.

The following week, they broke into groups of six. Each member of a group chose a persuasive speech a classmate had given and delivered a three-minute response to it. The other five took notes. This process prepared them for a 15-minute dialogue that followed.

During the students’ three-minute responses, Combs said, professors want to see nonverbal behaviors such as looking at one’s audience consistently and directly and expressing conviction in one’s face and gestures. They look at how well the students summarize the arguments to which they are responding, how well they organize their responses, how well they support their own arguments with evidence from credible sources and how civilly they present their material.
During the 15-minute discussions, professors want to hear students build a supportive climate, ask good questions (including ones to clarify others’ views), paraphrase their peers’ positions before responding to them, assert their own views clearly and interact civilly with the other students. They also look, Combs said, “for nonverbal behaviors that can build a supportive climate and engage in effective listening, for example, consistent and direct eye contact with the others who are speaking, facial expressions, head nods to suggest attentiveness, smiling to create empathy.”

Watching one group begin its dialogue, one could see how the students dutifully used the techniques necessary to achieve the course’s objectives. As they talked and listened to others talk about speeches related to social media, they became more engaged. A tangential reference to net neutrality moved the discussion into a new area. The students became curious. They asked each other questions. They weren’t trying to win anything. And they were doing more than getting a grade; they were gaining understanding of complex issues; they were learning.

After talking to Valenzano, Johnson had also learned the value of dialogue for her religious studies classes.

“I got won over gradually,” she said. “I came to realize that a lot more was involved than respect for the other person.”

That included speaking and listening, but a specific kind of speaking and listening.

“You have to speak so people can understand you,” she said. “You need to formulate what you think in a way that is clear to others.”

Listening is more than just hearing.

“You ask questions,” she said, “not trying to trip up opponents as in a debate, but so that you understand. The aim is to understand each other. If you don’t understand what the other is saying, you keep asking questions.”

She tells her students working in group dialogue that they are teammates, not competitors. That involves a certain amount of respect.

But, Johnson said, “it is more than being nice. And it is hard.”

One reason it’s hard, she thinks, is that UD students really are nice people.

“Whether it’s UD or the Midwest or whatever, most students here want to be nice,” she said. “They don’t want to offend anyone or stir up a heated disagreement. If you let them follow that instinct, what they are speaking may not be the truth and they may not understand what they are hearing.”

Before her conversion to dialogue as a method, Johnson had thought that dialogue avoided conflict.

But,” she said, “you can’t have good dialogue if you avoid conflict. If you avoid it, you can’t pursue truth.”

She had been attracted to debate because it could lead to truth.

“In debate, you want students to step up to the plate, not to sidestep conflict by saying, ‘We all have good points.’ You want them to make hard judgments, to pick a winner. The subjects we debated in class weren’t ones on which the student already had positions. They became engaged. They learned.”

But she also recognized a downside to competitive debate.

“Sometimes they would massage their positions in order to win.”

Her use of dialogue differs from her previous use of debate in that students often present their own views. And the concept of winning is different.

In dialogue, she said, “Winning is understanding someone else and having them understand you.”

Dialogue may not bring peace and love to the world, but a little understanding might make it a little better.

Johnson recalls a class that was looking at contemporary moral questions related to slavery. Some people read Pope Francis’ speech about human trafficking; some read about laws that would improve our ability to trace whether slavery was used in a supply chain.

Each student wrote a response to a contemporary article. They then broke into groups, determined by the paper each had picked.

Two members of one group were bright, white, male undergrads who wrote about the issue of whether there should be a national conversation about reparations.

“Each of their papers,” Johnson said, “said that race is over and talk of reparations would just stir up trouble.”
The other student was an African-American woman.

“It was one of the most transformative moments of dialogue I’ve ever seen,” Johnson said.

The men listened to the woman tell of her experience with racism, to her saying it was not over. Each student spoke. Each student listened. They did not try to change each other’s minds.

They tried to understand.