Civil discourse and constructive dialogue seem to have vanished from our collective experience. As the political debates get uglier and become increasingly excruciating to even pay attention to, I thought it would be helpful to share some of the tips I have learned from my involvement in the field of international education.
The “other” in this post refers to someone who is markedly different from oneself – whether politically, economically, geographically, religiously, etc. The process of interacting with someone who is “other” can lead either to degraded, destructive interactions, or to insightful and constructive dialogues that are mutually enriching.
- noun di·a·logue \ˈdī-ə-ˌlȯg, -ˌläg\
- a : a conversation between two or more persons
- b : an exchange of ideas and opinions
- c : a discussion between representatives of parties to a conflict that is aimed at resolution
Here are Some Tips to Help
1. Keep it civil.
Consider the definition of “civil”. Merriam-Webster includes “polite but not friendly” in its definition. This is important. You do not need to become best friends with the person you are in dialogue with. Respect your own beliefs and boundaries, but also respect their beliefs and boundaries.
2. Why do you believe what you believe?
Think about why you believe what it is you believe. What life experiences formed your current perspective on the world/politics/current events? What type of educational experiences were you given? What opportunities did you seek out? What mistakes have you made? What achievements have you gained? Who else was responsible for your experiences? Who helped shape these experiences? Family? Teachers? Religious Leaders? Friends? This is called critical reflection and it is essential to developing the ability to engage in constructive dialogue with those who are very different from you.
3. Keep an open mind.
Keep an open mind. Try to be receptive. Your beliefs and perspectives were formed by choices you have made and experiences you have had. Your beliefs have been shaped by previous interactions with people in your family, at your school, in your place of worship, in your workplace, as well as through chance encounters with many other people. Become curious about the other person’s experiences. Why do they believe what they believe? How were their perspectives formed? What was different about their educational experiences? How did their family/teachers/religious leaders/friends shape their beliefs? What have their achievements been? Maybe ask them about this!
4. Think about your role in the world.
Go deeper. How do you see your role in the interconnected world we all live in? What structures (laws, regulations, systems of commerce, cultural norms) shape how you experience life? How might those same structures change your perspective if you were from a different part of the world, or a different part of the country? How might these structures change your life if you were a different gender, race, height, weight, or eye color? What roles do you personally play in either maintaining these structures or in tearing them down? Why do you play these roles? For example, do you go to church/mosque/temple and maintain a certain religious culture because of your upbringing, a conversion experience and/or social pressure? Or, do you disparage religion because you had a bad experience with a religious person, because you are too educated for that and/or you prefer to do something else with your weekend? Do you support education because your parents told you it was a good idea, because you see economic value and/or because it’s “the right thing to do”? Or do you believe that education is a detrimental force in our society because you think it indoctrinates people with bad ideas, is a waste of time and resources, and/or leads to wider discrimination?
Take a deep breath. That was a lot.
6. What can you learn?
Now, what can you learn from the perspective of this “other” person that you are engaging with? Why do they hold their beliefs? Is there a middle ground you can find?
7. Don't stereotype, objectify, or oppress!
Don’t do this: stereotype, objectify, or oppress! As you listen to what this other person has to say, the tendency of the human mind is to maintain the status quo. Change is hard. Opening your mind is hard. Actually listening respectfully to what someone very different from you says is extraordinarily hard! The brain automatically reverts to stereotyping to try to make sense of something that is too outside of its comfort zone. Stereotyping makes it easier to objectify someone. When someone is an object, there is no need to engage in dialogue, to get to know them better, or to try to understand their perspective. Would you try to understand the perspective of a rock? Because, that is the way your brain will relate to this person if you are not paying attention. Oppression is another tool the brain uses to preserve its sanity. If the other person is “less than” you, their beliefs do not matter. Their perspectives have no importance. Don’t get caught in this trap.
8. Really don't oppress!
Colonization gets its own bullet point. You may be thinking “I would never oppress someone! I want to empower them!” Excellent. Be careful. A dangerous tendency when in dialogue with someone who is “other” is to try to empower or “save” them with your superior knowledge/life experiences/educational background. This compulsion is another trick the brain uses to try to maintain its status quo. It doesn’t like to be wrong. But you have already told it that it needs to listen respectfully and openly to this strange person who you disagree with. “The only reason to do that” the brain thinks “is to help them”. Remember the terrible, terrible idea of the “Noble Savage”? Don’t be that person!
9. Respect your boundaries.
Respect your boundaries. This can be intense and exhausting work. The other person might not be as interested in learning about your perspectives as you are in learning about theirs (especially if one is trying to gain votes!). Reflect on why you are engaging in this dialogue. Which of your perspectives may have shifted? How does that make you feel? What does that change for you? Sometimes, the result of a constructive dialogue with someone very different is the acceptance that you are both very different and you will simply agree to disagree.
Repeat. Engaging in dialogue with someone dramatically different can be a difficult process. Like most things worth doing, it takes practice.
Good luck out there! If you need resources to support you in learning how to engage in more constructive dialogue with different people, check out some of our resources:
- Panel discussion on the tools of diplomacy: www.nafsa.org/peacewebcast
- Online forum to discuss some of the more serious issues regarding dialogue with the “other”: www.nafsa.org/ResearchConnections
- Annual seminar to incorporate peacebuilding into educational programs: www.nafsa.org/Moffatt
- Webinar discussing high-impact educational strategies to support students in engaging with the “other” High-Impact Learning Approaches for a Global Civil Society