We are all breathing in the tension right now. A presidential election around the corner. Disagreement about a new Supreme Court Justice nominee. Heightened anxieties about the global pandemic. Political pundits are pounding their positions. And as the partisanship chasm deepens, day-to-day conversations have become a bit of a minefield.
As a Head of School, I have a front row seat to observe how teenagers are trying to navigate this terrain. When my student government team sat down to talk to me recently, here’s what I heard.
It’s really hard. It’s the elephant in the room, Dr. Bohlin. We want to start a campaign, so everyone knows their voice is valued, heard and respected. It’s not just about debating issues. It’s about our daily interactions— the way we listen, ask questions and really understand each other that matters.
They have valid concerns. And they have framed up their responses with a practical wisdom we sometimes lack as adults.
It’s so easy to reduce others to labels and stereotypes and not engage them as people. But when we ignore another person’s wholeness and inherent dignity, we also lose something of ourselves. Empathy can help here. I think we all know how it feels to be reduced to a view point, rejected, overlooked, boxed in or ignored. Social media makes this palpable to teenagers. These experiences erode our strength and resilience. They undermine our ability to communicate who we are and what we stand for. Why would we want to do this to others?
There are two extremes when faced with division and disagreement: I am not suggesting we aim at “going along to get along”— anything goes, standing for nothing. Neither am I suggesting we aim at holding firm to bias, labels, or canceling others when they disagree with our views and opinions.
We are aiming for something much higher.
As we reflect on who we are and what we stand for, we can ask ourselves and encourage others to ask: Do I want to be someone who takes an interest in other perspectives? Someone who bridges divides and builds people up? How can I move in that direction? How can I encourage interest, dialogue and authentic respect for people from a plurality of backgrounds, beliefs and traditions?
What follows are the eight tips I shared with our students— questions and strategies to help them approach conflict with reason, dignity and fair mindedness:
- Never assume. Be curious. Ask good questions: Help me understand why you think that? Can you tell me more about that?
- When somebody’s behavior upsets or confuses you, ask yourself: What are three possible reasons why she/he may have said or done that?
- Remember, there are at least three sides to every story and then the truth. Keep an open mind to the full picture.
- Make a habit of wondering: What else might be going on here? What do I know, what do I need to know and who can help?
- Ask yourself: How can I be part of the solution? What small step can I take to build a bridge? To open a pathway to conversation?
- Practice reflective listening: “Okay, can I just reflect back on what I heard you say? What I hear you saying is…. Is that accurate? Tell me more about _______. I want to understand better.”
- Speak the truth with clarity and charity.
- Keep a learning mindset, open to new perspectives, data, and understandings.
These are important skills not only for young people to practice; they are habits of mind critical to sustaining a vibrant democracy.
If you want to learn more about how to engage in courageous conversations — in an election year!— I hope you’ll join our webinar “Courageous Conversations: Why They Matter & How to Have Them” at 7PM EST on Tuesday, October 20th. The webinar will be led by humanities scholar and expert teacher Barbara Whitlock at Montrose School.