You’ve been there before. Many people have — looking forward to Thanksgiving and spending time with family but not so much looking forward to chatting with combative Uncle George, who seems bent on disagreeing with everything you say. There’s another way to deal with your proverbial Uncle George, and you can learn how through Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College. On Oct. 25, the college hosted its first “Can We Talk?” event and will follow up with another version on Nov. 17. Students from any college or even any university are encouraged to attend in person or on Zoom.
“Can We Talk?” is a moderated discussion in which participants follow ground rules to discuss divisive issues in a way that keeps things respectful, yet productive. The former vice president for news and civic dialogue at WHYY, Chris Satullo, who hosts the event, was approached in 2017 by a contemporary at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Jonathan Zimmerman, PhD, professor of history of education in Penn’s Graduate School of Education, was concerned about increasing divisiveness on campus after the 2016 election. Satullo, along with Harris Sokoloff, PhD, Penn adjunct associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and director for the Center for School Study Councils, developed the event and co-authored the ground rules. Typically, they give the presentations together.
Originally, Penn students and students from Cairn University were the participants, but it grew in 2019 when a Penn donor sponsored the program. It was called the Red and Blue Exchange and ran for three years. There are still a few of those events on Penn’s campus this year, but not with student dialogues. Satullo wanted to continue that and eventually found a home with Pennoni.
Dean Paula Marantz Cohen, PhD, said it was clear that “Can We Talk?” would be a great fit for the college’s Center for Civil Discourse, which already included Pennoni Panels, Wednesdays at Bentley, The Civil Discourse and the Teagle-funded Program for Civic Foundations.
“This gives us an array of activities and academic programming that can help students engage with each other across different backgrounds and opinions,” Dean Marantz Cohen said. “The first “Can We Talk?” event, held last week, was enormously successful, with some 40–50 students taking part. We now have a dozen or so students who’ve also signed up to be trained as moderators. We’re very excited about this new initiative at Pennoni!”
Satullo said the Oct. 25 event was one of the more successful ones. Students came ready to attack complicated questions, were attentive and kept to the ground rules.
“We emphasize that these are tools that you can use in class, around campus, in your dorm or your apartment, at work and perhaps even most crucially, at home with family, particularly with Thanksgiving coming up,” Satullo said. “You’ve never figured out how to deal with Uncle George at the holiday table, so here are things you can try without being presumptuous that they’ll work. There are some Uncle Georges with whom nothing works, but most of the time people don’t even know how to try to have a different conversation.”
So how do you have that conversation? Satullo offered some tips. To learn more, and to practice them in person, you can attend the next “Can We Talk?” at 7 p.m. on Nov. 17, either on Zoom or in-person.
If you’re just waiting for your turn to speak, you’ll never get anywhere. You must show people that you’re actually willing to listen to them to get the dialogue off the ground. It’s important to listen to the other person, and it’s important to listen to the ground rules that Satullo and Sokoloff set up before each discussion. “Listen” is the first one, and Sokoloff emphasizes the importance.“If you’re learning a better way to be persuasive with people who don’t necessarily share all your experiences or values, that’s extremely important,” Satullo said. “That’s powerful. We want everybody to bring their values and their passion to the conversation but discover a way of talking about these emotional issues in a way that keeps the conversation going and leads to learning, understanding and respect, rather than anger, polarization and insults.”
- Redefine a win
Within the group Satullo moderated, he was surprised that the students wanted to tackle abortion first. There were distinct views amongst the seven students in the group and the discussion went deep.“At the end, a very pro-choice student looked across the table at the pro-life student, and said, ‘Thank you. That’s the first decent conversation I’ve ever had with somebody who thinks like you do,’” Satullo said. “I count that as a win.”In civil discussion like this, a win doesn’t have to be just defined by bringing the other person to your side. A win more often looks like a better and more respectful understanding for how and why the other person thinks the way they do, on both sides.“If your idea of the conversation is that you’re going to show how brilliant you are and how wrong the other person is, you’re doomed to fail,” Satullo said. “If you go in thinking there’s nothing worth taking from what this other person says, you’re going to learn nothing, and you’ll never realize some points of common ground where you can stand together to work on at least a piece of a problem.”
- Admit that there may be a pebble in your shoe
Once you’ve begun to really listen and open respectful dialogue, you can begin to ask questions and introduce your views. Importantly, Satullo said, you shouldn’t act as if you think you’re smarter than the other person.“You have to admit the possibility that they know something that you don’t know, or that there’s something about your own position you’re not sure of,” Satullo said. “Admitting that there’s a pebble in your shoe is one of the most powerful things you can do to get the other person to listen to you.”It takes patience, but the goal of civil dialogue is to have a conversation and try to work toward understanding. You don’t have to sit there and politely pretend to agree to things you profoundly disagree with, Satullo said, but you don’t have to refuse to cede any ground, either.“There’s a way to engage with them and suggest to them that there’s another way of viewing the world,” Satullo said. “It takes patience.”
- Take a pause
When embarking on this kind of dialogue, you’re going to hear some things that you profoundly disagree with. Your body might react before you do: your mouth could start speaking before your brain can kick in and rein in the outburst, your face might go red, you could get butterflies in your stomach and your neck might tighten up.“Pause before speaking,” Satullo said. “It almost never helps to respond in the moment when all those hormones are rushing through your body. Take a deep breath and remind yourself of the ground rules. Then respond by asking a question to clarify the other person’s position.”
- Don’t dominate the conversation
When laying out the ground rules before a dialogue opens, Satullo reminds everyone to think about how annoying it is when someone dominates the conversation or just likes to hear themselves talk. Basically, remember the golden rule: Do to others what you would have them do to you.“We have lost our way in this polarized environment where everybody feels their moral duty is to stand up and say dramatic, self-righteous things to uphold their values when really what you’re doing is destroying the possibility that the other person will ever see any value in what you have to say,” Satullo said. “Forbearing judgment until you know all the facts is not necessarily a failure to uphold your values.”
- Bonus: Listen!
In the ground rules, Satullo and Sokoloff list this one twice. It’s that important to continuing a civil dialogue, and it can be the hardest to stick to when emotions take over. But with practice, you’ll make progress.“This event is like an appetizer: the first taste of an alternative way of having conversations,” Satullo said. “It’s not meant to produce dazzling insights, but it’s a process that takes the steam out of the polarization. We hope this gives people a thirst for more, and if they can use the skills with Uncle George at Thanksgiving, that’s great. Over time, it will have some good effects.”