A recent article in Phi Delta Kappan talked about how students can disagree productively and with civility in the classroom. Given an environment where adults in the United States are finding it harder and harder to even talk with each other, this seems to be a useful topic for Empower. Students must talk about the issues of the day, particularly as they go through their teen years, in order to both be and become informed members of civil society. But issues such as religious liberty, sexuality, race, class, the environment, tax policy, immigration, the role of government, are all highly charges areas for debate. The recent and continuing demonstrations around gun control after the Florida school shooting are a case in point. Part of their title included the phrase: More Listening. Let’s begin there.

In Difficult Conversations, the authors dissect conversations into three parts: What Happened Conversation? Feelings Conversation; Identity Conversation. The What Happened Conversation is, the authors state, where we “struggle with our different stories about who’s right (truth), who meant what (intentions), and who’s to blame (blame)” (p.9).

An example they offer is about Aunt Bertha. “My great Aunt Bertha sleeps on this sagging old mattress. She’s got terrible back problems, but no matter what I say, she refuses to let me buy her a new mattress. Everyone in the family tells me, Rory, Aunt Bertha is just crazy! (p.26)”. But Aunt Bertha has her own story: “It’s the one I shared with my husband for forty years, and it makes me feel safe. There are so many other changes in my life, it’s nice to have a little haven that stays the same (p.27)”. Both Rory and Aunt Berth have a story and it is significant that they are situated in different stories. As the authors point out, in this common scenario, “arguing pulls us apart (p.29)”.

Listening begins with an attitudinal shift from trying to change someone’s (behavior, thinking, intentions etc.) to trying first to understand, to be understood, and to do that in way that can be heard and appreciated by the other person. Leading discussions then must begin with teaching the skill of listening. This is only in small part the technique of having an open posture, leaning forward, making eye contact, reflecting what you hear. The techniques are helpful and students should know them, but they can be considered manipulative if they are not attached to a deeper practice of listening. This includes:

  • Curiosity – do I actually want to know? Am I intrigued by hearing the person? Am I willing to be uncertain?
  • Acceptance – am I willing to accept the other person’s story as authentic?
  • Being right AND – am I willing to be right AND acknowledge there is more to learn?
  • Gaining insight – am I willing to listen to understand rather than listen in order to respond?

Arlie Hochschild in “Strangers in Their Own Land” (2016) calls this the Deep Story. She is talking with Tea Party members in Louisiana as a liberal sociologist from Berkely, genuinely trying to understand how they can be so opposed to government action when their own land is being poisoned. She writes: “A deep story is a feels-as-if story – it’s the story feelings tell in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world” (p. 135).

Leading discussions is first, then, about leading listening, finding the ‘deep story’, being curious and open. Steven Covey provides a simple way of doing this. He suggests that:

  1. Person A states their viewpoint
  2. Person B restates it back to demonstrate understanding
  3. This process repeats until Person A is convinced that Person B understands her
  4. Person B states their viewpoint …………

This is not a short process but it not only allows ‘opponents’ to appreciate each other, it actually ends up including the seeds of the 3rd story that will respect each other’s story and build from there to a new story. This does not imply that everyone will agree. It does imply that there are going to be arenas of agreement along with continued disagreements. Often, the facts themselves are ultimately not disputed by either side. The ‘deep story’ behind the facts is.

To go back to the Phi Delta Kappan article, the authors point out that “argument has been identified as the “core” of the Common Core State Standards for English language arts. Argument has been celebrated as an important “path to developing students’ thinking and writing”. And it has been highlighted in the National Council for the Social Studies’ College, Career, and Civic Readiness framework”. They also point out that without exceptional facilitative skills, such argument can devolve into shouting matches. Listening is the first key to empowering argument that is generative, improves the student community, breaks down barriers between students, and gives them skills / processes to negotiate issues that result in better solutions to issues. Their research into class ‘arguments’ found:

  • Students tend to use evidence selectively.
  • Students tend to use deliberations to justify their own views.
  • Males tended to dominate deliberations.
  • Teachers varied in their approach to facilitation.

Empower recommends that teachers don’t shy away from arguments in any discipline. They are central to good education, natural to conversation, and can be lots of fun. However, given the incivility currently practiced in the public arena, we also recommend:

  1. Teachers themselves ensure that they understand and can practice the skill of listening as this article has outlined it
  2. Teachers teach the skill of listening intentionally in simple settings first before progressing to more complex topics
  3. Teachers practice and teach facilitation skills so that argument is productive and leads to greater understanding

Argumentation resources cited in the article:

http://www.kappanonline.org/crocco-less-arguing-listening-improving-civility-classrooms/ February 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (5), 4. © 2018 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.