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In a World of Debate, Practice Makes Perfect

Civic Engagement LEAD Initiative
March 7, 2017 Kristin Economos College of Biological Sciences [University of Minnesota Twin Cities]

“Which candidate did you support in the most recent U.S. Presidential Election?”

I asked the question prompt to a group of 16 students who each looked back at me with looks of concern and shock. Why would we discuss something so polarizing, in a service learning class, no less?

I proceeded to tell students that they would be discussing this prompt in pairs, but in a different way, with a different set of rules than they may expect.

“While your partner shares their views,” I said, “your only goal is to seek to understand them. Make them feel safe, heard, and listened to by giving them your full attention, asking questions in attempt to learn more about the experiences, relationships, and values that have shaped the way they think about this question prompt.”

Students started to nod. Slowly.

“Face each other and give yourself permission to use warm body language, leaning in and nodding your head; not to show that you agree with their opinion, necessarily, but to encourage your partner to keep sharing, practicing their ability to be courageous and articulate why they believe what they do without being interrupted, debated, or embarrassed.”

The activity began… and then continued. Students who were previously glazed over with boredom sat up, leaned forward and started talking. Those who listened gave space, stayed present, and asked incredibly thought-provoking questions of their peers.

After the activity concluded, I asked students to share what this experience had been like.

“I was really nervous,” one student said. “I’m used to talking about these issues, but only in close friendships with those whose opinions I know match mine. I didn’t feel well prepared to defend my opinion, but the parameters we were given made it easier to try.”

“It felt weird,” another student shared. “I had an opinion that was polar opposite from my partner’s, but since it wasn’t my job to convince them otherwise, I could spend more time and energy thinking about how to ask them better questions in understanding them instead of forming my own response. It just seemed weird because I’ve never been asked to try it this way before.”

Precisely. We have to try. These discussions about politics, values and the impacts of the recent election on students and our communities have been seen and heard across our campuses, but months after Election Day, the need for dialogue, seeking to understand other perspectives is a life skill we must give our students the opportunity to practice. Otherwise, we give them lip service about the importance of this skill without ever giving them the safety to try, to fail, and to try again.

I attended the NASPA Leadership Educator’s Institute in December 2016, where Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington spoke to the audience, giving us educators an incredible task: Give students an opportunity to practice sharing what they believe and why in a campus community that will catch them when they fall.

Rev. Washington shared that we often talk about civil discourse, dialogue, and debate when we discuss outcomes of true leadership development, but we don’t often give students the opportunity to practice these skills, to be wrong and to learn what it means to think critically about beliefs that may otherwise go unchecked. This practice helps our students in several ways; first, by getting really clear about what informs their perspective, but also in learning faces, names, and stories that inform those who think differently than them. It eliminates the “other.” It creates a space where students are given permission to try, to fail, and maybe even to change their mind.

As we continue to consider how we equip students with the opportunities and skills to become globally-minded, inclusive, and community-focused leaders, we must consider how we give them opportunities to practice these skills in community, navigating highly-sensitive dialogue with respect, warmth, and a commitment to listening in order to understand, instead of listening to form a response.


Washington, J. (2016). NASPA Leadership Educators Institute: Long Beach, CA