Engaging in the Hard Work of Civil Discourse

This might seem like a silly question: Are you a dog person or a cat person? Why? Now imagine you’re a dog lover and you can’t understand the enthusiasm of a cat aficionado. Or vice versa. Suppose you have to explain your passion for your favorite pet to a person who disagrees with you. How do you communicate your beliefs civilly?
That’s an example of a somewhat benign topic that people often disagree on, but imagine if the assignment is to explain your views on religion, politics, race, or a number of other topics that lead to disagreements. The discussions can grow quite heated.
How do we learn the skills to talk to one another without dismissing opinions or completely blowing up? This is the work of practicing civil discourse. According to the organization Facing History and Ourselves, civil discourse is when we “listen respectfully to different opinions and experiences, try out ideas and positions, and give and get constructive feedback without fear or intimidation.”
Getting Hutchison girls to understand and engage in civil discourse is the objective of Eryka Jenkins and Sarah Wilson this year. Jenkins is the school’s director of student equity and inclusion, and Wilson is a visiting scholar to Hutchison. She serves as the executive director of the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools (TAIS) and previously directed Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls (LCRG) at the Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She is also the parent of two Hutchison girls.
Part of Hutchison’s mission is to “educate young women … for lives of integrity and responsible citizenship.” Working together, Jenkins and Wilson are beginning to codify the principles of civil discourse throughout the school and in classrooms, where civil discourse discussions often arise organically. Additionally, they are being intentional by conducting a series of civil discourse sessions with Hutchison’s seniors. They chose to focus on the senior class this year because it’s crucial for them to practice these skills before heading off to college.
Before jumping into practicing civil discourse, Jenkins and Wilson challenged the seniors to create and agree on their own ground rules. “It was empowering for them to be able to decide those rules themselves,” Jenkins said. “They’re more likely to follow rules they agree on than if someone is dictating the rules.”
She added that they were intentional, at first, about not mandating certain topics. “We made it about communicating across difference.” The earlier question about whether you prefer dogs or cats, for example, was a kind of ice breaker.

“We made it about communicating across difference.”
They then framed the sessions with six skills for civil discourse that were defined by Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls. The first three are emotional, the last three are cognitive.

Wilson noted that it was important for the girls to understand that these six skills are not just habits or characteristics of their personality. “You have to engage and practice these skills. You’re going to make mistakes on the way to improving your ability to engage in civil discourse,” she explained. “You make mistakes, you learn from them, you build, you work towards mastering and honing these skills.”
A second aspect of this work is that you need others who are mutually engaged in the same pursuit as you are, so that you feel comfortable hearing their feedback. “We discussed what feedback looks like,” Jenkins added. “So, if someone says something that’s an ouch point, how will you respond? How will you not respond?”
Why Do This Kind of Work?
Jenkins and Wilson understood going into these discussions that a lot of the girls, even though they are seniors, may not be accustomed to this type of conversation. They talked about the “a-ha!” moments that girls had while participating in these sessions.
For instance, some girls considered the differences between debate, in which the goal is to win your argument, and civil discourse, in which you are sharing ideas and enlarging your own understanding. Additionally, they came to the realization that they’ve spent most of their academic lives writing essays to argue a certain point.

“Girls ... considered the differences between debate, in which the goal is to win your argument, and civil discourse, in which you are sharing ideas and enlarging your own understanding.”
Within these civil discourse sessions, Jenkins said, they’re having to examine what they believe and why. “A lot of them haven’t had to think about that. We are challenging them to think about the factors that have contributed to them holding an opinion or a belief and then helping them see that we all land somewhere different.”
Wilson explained that practicing civil discourse is not about changing anyone’s mind. “A group of researchers who looked at disagreement in the classroom found that when students disagree with each other and talk it through, they are less likely to change their minds, but more likely to better understand their positions and the other person’s position. That’s a key skill for life.”
“Some of them have experienced discomfort with these sessions,” Jenkins admitted. “There were a few who were even honest and said that they didn’t think that they could learn anything from someone who thought differently than they do.”
There were highlights, though. Wilson provided an example: “In one session, there was a girl who is very confident. She’s an accomplished leader, an accomplished student, and she shared her point of view. Another girl asked her questions designed to understand her point of view better. At the end, when we were giving them feedback, the confident speaker said, ‘I was really nervous about that.’ We had no idea she was nervous. We thought she handled it gracefully, and we asked her how she did that. She credited the other student’s authentic openness, true questioning, her tone, and the use of those effective engagement skills for her comfort.
“It’s that idea that it’s a two-way street,” Wilson added. “It’s two people coming together with shared norms and shared groundwork for engagement.”

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Hutchison is the leading private girls school in Memphis for ages 2 years old through twelfth grade.