Earlier this March, a professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, a private Christian institution in Florida, lost his job after a parent complained about a racial justice unit in his course. He had taught that same unit for 12 years.
Also in March, a conservative judge, invited to speak by Stanford Law School’s chapter of the Federalist Society, was shouted down by students who said his court rulings caused harm to LGBTQ+ students, and that giving him a platform on campus compromised their safety. The law school’s associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion took the mic during the protest to question whether the talk was “worth the pain . . . and the division that this causes?”
That same week, on the opposite coast, South Carolina lawmakers battled over whether to stop funding diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at state colleges. These are only some of the political controversies on college campuses that have made national news this month.
Schools and campuses have often been the battleground for American culture wars. From debates about teaching evolution to racial segregation, interested parties with diverging ideologies have sought to influence school curricula, policies, and practices. These ideological tensions show up as efforts to ban books and disqualify curricular resources containing disputed subject matter. Schools have fired educators from both sides of the political spectrum for expressing political views in the classroom and on social media.
Is there a better way for us to navigate our disagreements? At the Constructive Dialogue Institute, our goal is to help people communicate across lines of difference and work together to solve complex problems. In today’s political climate, divisions may feel insurmountable. But the results from our new online learning program suggest there is reason for hope.
The need for constructive dialogue
When we founded the Constructive Dialogue Institute in 2017, we were alarmed by what appeared to be rapidly rising political tension across communities, including education. At that time, our cofounders—social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and social entrepreneur Caroline Mehl—were both at New York University Stern School of Business. They, like other educators, felt the impact of national politics flooding college campuses. Conservative student groups were inviting alt-right speakers, and liberal student groups were resorting to shout-downs and protests to silence the same speakers. In some instances, tensions peaked to the point of violence. In classrooms, discussions ranging from corporate responsibility to gender identity and gay marriage were devolving into shouting matches.
The conflict created an almost unbearable sense of tension around campus, where staff, students, and faculty alike felt they were walking on eggshells. Many, understandably, chose to steer clear of any controversial topics; it was the safer choice. But that response seemed to undermine something fundamental, core, and sacred to higher education. Isn’t college precisely the place to encounter new ideas and explore diverse viewpoints? At one time or another, haven’t we all questioned our belief systems, identity labels, and affiliations? It’s a critical part of self-exploration and figuring out our place and purpose in the world.
We were also afraid that what we witnessed on campuses was tapping into deeply wired and detrimental human tendencies to seek comfort and only associate with those who mirror ourselves. Evolutionary psychologists have been aware of the human instinct for tribalism for decades—people intuitively define the world through “us versus them,” with tribes relentlessly jostling for status.
Throughout Haidt’s career, his research centered on these topics. He uncovered how polarization develops and the solutions used by groups and societies to navigate conflict. There seemed to be a way out through behavioral science: The answer was that collaboration and problem solving across differences become more possible when people use dialogue and reframe their conversation goals as achieving mutual understanding, rather than winning.
Turning down the heat
Not all issues lend easily to compromise, and not all problems have neatly packaged solutions. But we believe that adopting tools to practice dialogue and learn about the root of our ideological differences is a feasible way to learn, work, and live together thoughtfully, even in the face of challenges.
In an effort to make those tools available to more people, we distilled the key ideas from behavioral science into an online learning program, called Perspectives, made of short, interactive lessons (think Noom, but for politics). We pulled from cognitive psychology, moral psychology, political psychology, conflict resolution, negotiation, and mediation. We also provided opportunities for people to pair up with one another and practice communication skills.
In Perspectives, students learn to recognize moral beliefs that they share, even with people they disagree with. They review research findings indicating that most Americans have distorted perceptions of the other side. They learn to ask questions to understand each other, share the life experiences that have shaped their views, and establish a collaborative goal with others even when in conflict.
To test whether Perspectives worked, we recruited 775 college students across 10 courses at three U.S. universities. We randomly assigned some students to take Perspectives and some students to not, and we measured their attitudes and beliefs before and after.
The group who took Perspectives were more likely to recognize that their knowledge was limited—something psychologists call intellectual humility. They also expressed less contempt for people who were different from them politically. And, finally, they were less likely to verbally attack others when they encountered conflict.
These results mirrored the stories we heard from educators all over the country, who are able to access Perspectives online for free. Instructors have emailed us saying Perspectives was the most impactful thing they did with their students, and that it enabled them to have respectful disagreements about restrictions on free speech on campus, structural inequities, and poverty. One instructor said, “There’s too much at stake to not get these conversations right.”
Perspectives provided a platform and the skills for students and educators to talk about topics that really matter, and, because of this, it changed the atmosphere of classrooms. Students who were previously silent started talking. Students who were steadfast in their opinions started listening. Students whose emotions boiled learned to take a deep breath before speaking. And they made friends—these conversations allowed them to pull back layers and get to know each other in a meaningful way.
One student from Waterloo wrote to us: “I felt that my [conversation] partner really accepted me and my opinions for who I am, without being judgmental or dismissing. I also feel that I did the same with her. We offered suggestions for improvement and other thought patterns to each other when we took turns sharing. We also found that we shared a lot in common even with our differences.”
The most powerful stories came from those who encountered differences. One of our learners is a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) trainer. During one of her training sessions, she encountered resistance from a participant. She wrote to us:
I think old me would have been annoyed, but instead I immediately approached him, and we got into a meaningful conversation about if DEI matters. I asked him a lot of questions to better understand why he didn’t feel the content was so relevant to his particular community and I also shared my perspective on why it matters to me and my community. . . . He said he felt [DEI] puts an emphasis on the differences we have rather than the similarities. In my four years here, I never heard that perspective and I am also not sure that me four years ago would have had the skills to try to understand where he was coming from. I completely heard his view that this could be othering and made me wonder if there was a better way . . . we made a true impact on one another and it is the first time in a while I felt like I was able to engage in a productive way with someone who felt so opposite of me. We were so committed to being honest and thoughtful with each other.
Lessons from Perspectives
We think part of the effectiveness of Perspectives is that the skills are based in psychological science and are useful across multiple facets of life—at home, at school, and in relationships. We have distilled these into five principles of constructive dialogue:
1. Let go of winning. Approaching a conversation like a zero-sum battle, where one side wins and the other loses, sets up an adversarial dynamic that will lead the other person’s defenses to go up. This dynamic minimizes the possibility of learning, and it often damages relationships. Recognize that by striving to win, you are actually setting yourself up for failure. Instead, try entering conversations with intellectual humility, curiosity, and the goal to understand. You will find it can be contagious.
2. Share your story and invite others to do the same. Research from psychology and political science consistently demonstrates that people rarely change their minds about deeply held beliefs because of facts. Rather, sharing stories about personal experiences can be a powerful way to open up new paths of understanding. Focus on discussing issues through your own experience of them—why an issue is important to you or how an issue affects you. Try to draw out those same insights from others.
3. Ask questions to understand. Expressing intellectual humility through questions is a powerful way to deepen a conversation. But questions can shut down dialogue as easily as they can promote it. Think about the difference between, “How can you possibly think that?” and “Can you tell me more about what led you to this view?” The first likely puts someone on the defensive, while the second may open up a new avenue of conversation. Be intentional about asking nonjudgmental questions that invite meaningful reflection.
4. Acknowledge the role of emotions. Often validating someone’s feelings about an issue can provide a spark that builds into trust and mutual understanding. It is not always easy, though. Imagine acknowledging someone’s strong emotions about a view you really oppose; for example, “I can see that protecting the unborn is really important to you.” This can feel quite unnatural. Doing so does not mean you’re endorsing their view, but rather it acknowledges the very real feelings they have and makes them feel heard. This can build trust and may lead them to be more open to your perspective.
5. When possible, seek common ground. Common ground can be found in a variety of places—from small things like shared interests to large things like shared goals or agreement that a particular value matters. For example, two people who disagree about the solutions to homelessness can still agree that it is an important societal problem. Small or large, the connections that common ground creates can be building blocks for forging strong relationships and identifying additional points of connection.
Reason for hope
Since we launched in 2017, we have reached 60,000 learners. Even though these learning modules were developed for college students, a lot of people and communities took an interest. We saw high school teachers, religious organizations, and workplaces searching for solutions to interpersonal problems and finding them in our dialogue tools.
We know there is much more to do. In many ways, the polarization we see in our country is a manifestation of our age-old human problem—the drive to separate ourselves into clans and to prove that our clan is superior to others. The difference is that now, we understand where these instincts come from, and, thankfully, we have some tools that can help.