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It’s been almost seven years since writer and public radio host Celeste Headlee gave her February 2016 TED talk, “Ten Ways to Have a Better Conversation.” It went viral. She became an in-demand speaker. People found her methods to be highly effective. They were having better conversations and even enjoying them more.
Headlee’s advice was straightforward and made up of things we hear a lot these days: be open-minded, listen more, ask open-ended questions, don’t repeat yourself, a conversation is not a self-promotional opportunity. We all need these pragmatic principles.
Then the 2016 election happened, and our political and cultural divisions became even deeper. Four years later, when COVID became rampant, we became physically as well as socially isolated from each other. It was a recipe for conversational breakdown if there ever was one.
Now, as we move out of COVID, no matter what great advice we get, it still seems everyone’s talking past each other. We feel the effects of it deeply in higher education because faculty, staff and students across the country are still trying to create a public sphere in which reasonable people can disagree. And when we fail, which is often, the failure resonates. We even differ on how to define what is reasonable in the first place. But as classes have resumed this fall, in a world still awash in the present and aftereffects of COVID, two years of remote learning, and partisan myopia, it’s more important than ever that we find ways of talking to each other. It’s an art—and a lost art, at that.
The data are clear: we are seeing more and more students unable to engage with face-to-face conversations with the same skill and confidence as they once did. We are seeing more social anxiety in their everyday interactions. We are seeing more fear in the classroom for being an outlier in one’s opinions—because of either one’s disadvantage or one’s advantage in life. Even conversations outside the classroom are themselves becoming a challenge. Faculty and staff, too, are increasingly feeling demoralized. The basics of most everyday interactions have changed. For many leaders, too, it is just easier to focus on manufacturing hope, ignore the hard questions about morale and have another kind of conversation.
There are many reasons this is the current state of affairs. First, the conversational habits—even for difficult topics—that we used to know don’t seem to work anymore. Second, the pace and demands of academic life often dictate that people jump into a conversation without examining expectations or understanding why their interlocutors are having a conversation in the first place. Third, academia is rife with a lot of extrinsic motivation for conversation (“I need to get a good participation grade”; “It’s politically a good idea to get to know my department chair or my unit supervisor”) but very little understanding of what the value of a face-to-face conversation might be in terms of the rewards of human relationship.
It is clear that the art of conversation needs to be learned again. In fact, we should use this moment in time to develop it in new ways.
There are many ways to tackle difficult conversations. Many are already being used on campuses throughout the country, including frameworks organized around restorative practices, restorative justice, conflict resolution or conflict transformation.
The most basic of these approaches, and in many ways a prerequisite for the others, is the approach of deliberative dialogue—which has championed scaffolded conversation. Scaffolded conversation helps people learn the basics of engagement; it doesn’t assume that everyone has the skill and background to interact with a shared vocabulary to begin with. Higher education is one powerful place to help build these skills of scaffolding. And if these conversational habits grow alongside all the other intellectual and social skills students learn in college, they can have a positive effect on democratic practices in the broader world.
Even if it is called something different, scaffolding is all around us in the larger culture. There are advice columns about having a preconversation before family members go on vacation together. There are communication specialists giving advice to doctors about how to communicate, in several steps, with their patients. All of this involves literally planning, or staging, several conversations before you can have the conversation you want to have.
It’s time to integrate scaffolding into academic culture — whether that’s in the classroom or in the dormitory. We need to be open and explicit about the basics of conversation—grounded in both the old values, such as why face-to-face conversation matters, as well as the new values, such as why and how we need to build conversations differently in our current predicament. This is particularly important when it comes to the challenge of difficult conversations, where people jump to assumed motivations and common stereotypes and can get caught in what journalist Amanda Ridley calls “high conflict”—where identities are caught up in participation in conflict, and we define ourselves through our role in the conflict, rather than through its de-escalation and transformation into a positive, rather than a negative, tension.
Scaffolded or staged conversation is a part of deliberative dialogue, defined by author and community builder Scott London as a form of public discourse that is focused not so much on talking together as thinking together. In this it differs from debate, negotiation, brainstorming or consensus building, where goals are distinct from the simple act of common deliberation. And deliberation at its best is a laddered process, the vitality of which depends on moving one step at a time.
First and foremost, scaffolding means preparation, or what many call preconversation. A preconversation explores the reasons for having a conversation at all—why someone might be interested in doing so and what people’s motivations are for coming to the table. They also might even explore what people’s motivations would be for not coming to the table—an important element in today’s fractured world.
Second, a scaffolded approach to dialogue assumes that there will be many conversations, not just one, about even a seemingly simple topic—whether that’s a project happening with a student group or an assignment in a classroom. It assumes that conversations don’t just begin and end in an artificial way but are ongoing. Perhaps most importantly, the approach changes our expectations; we don’t put all the weight on a single conversation and therefore end up in inevitable disappointment that the conversation did not lead to opportunities to express our voice or to talk about the topics that we wanted.
Third, scaffolded conversations are planned and move from one stage to the next. They might begin with an exploration about motivations for having a conversation about a particular topic. They might then move to the experience that people have with a particular topic. They might further have a third conversation about people’s opinions about a particular topic, and how those opinions have evolved over time. If the situation warrants it, there could be a fourth conversation about how people’s minds might have been changed by listening to others.
A powerful example of this approach occurred when Israeli-Palestinian tensions flared in the news in the spring of 2021. One class in political science at Middlebury College was focusing precisely on this topic. Students’ backgrounds included Israelis, Arabs, American Jews and Arab Americans. With the professor, the students decided that a scaffolded conversation—one that was planned in very clear phases—would be the best way forward.
The professor in the class, Sebnem Gumuscu, told me that when the expectations for each conversation were lowered because the topic was delineated carefully, students were less likely to feel silenced. They also knew that another opportunity for a conversation on other, more difficult, topics would arrive later. In the meantime, a level of trust was built as each of these conversations occurred. This chain of events is part of the emerging field of deliberative teaching.
Other models for deliberative dialogue, variously emphasizing our roles as citizens and voters and focused on navigating deep partisan divides, can be found in the work of organizations and collaborations like Listen Courageously, Project Pericles and Red and Blue Dialogues. In these initiatives, expectations are lowered. Long-term frameworks are introduced. People know they aren’t in it for the win.
Scaffolding should be ubiquitous on college campuses in 2022. This approach can be used in basic, everyday conversations with roommates or professors or dining hall staff or coaches or librarians, or in more complex contexts, such as conversations among curriculum committee participants, or charged ones, as in conversations between trustees and protesting students. Scaffolding is indeed labor-intensive. It means slowing down.
What is more, scaffolding can and should be more than an academic exercise. It is an everyday, undramatic activity, a development of a basic habit of creating approaches and behaviors that become second nature. At a minimum, scaffolding can soften our rhetorical elbows (the beginning of social divisions), especially on campus. And at a maximum, it can be a tool to guide town meetings, statehouse negotiations and foreign policy. Like the refurbishing of any building, the strength of the restoration begins with a strength of the scaffolding. This is equally true of American democracy, which takes root powerfully in our classrooms and on our campuses.