SOUTH BEND, Ind. — You’ve probably witnessed or experienced some not-so-great conversations with people who have different views than you this year. A college professor in northern Indiana is trying to help others remain civil during those difficult and frustrating chats.
Professor Megan Zwart at St. Mary’s College in South Bend has been teaching a class about civil discourse since 2016. In 2020, her students have been discussing some of the big topics.
“Abortion. Gun rights. Immigration. Environmental policies,” Zwart said. “We’ve talked about ‘cancel culture’ which was an interesting one.”
Once a week, her students get together for class, and go through a variety of stories, from “high-quality sources across the political field,” regarding some of the hot topics. Then they have an open dialogue about where they stand on those topics. Then, the conversation molds into listening exercises and teaching moments.
“These things want to evolve into debates,” she said. “But for us, it’s really important to have a dialogue, not a debate.”
“In a debate, somebody wins and somebody loses. But in a dialogue, everyone can learn something.”
LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSOR ZWIRT:
Zwirt says one of the key things is to have an unbiased mindset heading into the discussion.
“You have to have a good context in which everybody is up for it, everyone is willing to listen and learn,” she said. “If you try to persuade somebody, if that’s your aim, then you’re not in control of the outcome and you’re more likely to become frustrated. But if your intent is to understand, then you can ask curious questions to the other person that help you connect the dots. Why do they believe what they believe? How do their values and core beliefs give rise to their views on a specific issue?”
She adds that we should live in a world where people have different views, but if you go into a conversation with the intent to try to understand the other view, then you’re going to come out of it thinking you got value out of that discussion.
Another important thing is how you’re having this conversation. She advises that you try to do it in-person and not on social media.
“It’s much more likely that people are there just to score points or to troll or to make their opponent look foolish.”
You can read more about Professor Zwirt’s class, and their tips, at www.saintmarys.edu/news/civil-discourse.