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Student Well-Being Opinion

Our Country Is Polarized: How to Have Constructive Classroom Conversations

By Eranda Jayawickreme — September 29, 2021 2 min read
How do I teach students to disagree respectfully?
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How do I prevent disagreements from becoming arguments?

If you understand what causes things to escalate, you can calm the conversation. Here’s something I wrote recently about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

“I’m all for helping refugees, but some cultures just don’t fit with the American way of life.”

So said my airplane seatmate a few years ago. He and I were in a heated discussion—should the United States admit more refugees from war-ravaged Syria? As someone who has done research on how forcibly displaced populations cope with the impact of political violence, I had strong views on the topic.

Of course, a degree in psychology does not make me a specialist in the complexities of refugee policy in my adopted country. I couldn’t rattle off statistics or deeply informed analyses of resettlement issues. Yet my first instinct when hearing my seatmate’s claim was to challenge him. And, in the back of my mind, to judge him.

Why was it hard to be humble and honest about what I didn’t know in this situation? In a recent study, people were more likely to consider different viewpoints in situations where they saw the person they were arguing with as moral and therefore trustworthy. Conversely, they were less likely to be open to opposing views when they disliked the person. The content of the disagreement—morality, facts, opinions—didn’t matter; what was important was what they thought of their conversation partner.

That may be why we become defensive when we get into arguments—we tend to see criticism of our views as critiques of our character, because that’s how we typically think of others. If I wanted to convince my seatmate that refugees—from Syria, Afghanistan, or other politically unstable nations—deserve a chance in this country, perhaps I should have listened more and judged less.

If I could go back and redo my conversation on the plane that day, I would ask, “What do you think are the reasons we should help refugees? Where do you think refugee policies have gone right in this country?” In today’s polarized environment, I think we all need to cultivate intellectual humility more than ever and model these skills for the young people in our lives.

Don’t believe that when someone disagrees with you on an issue, it reflects a character flaw.

Do assume the best of intentions when disagreements arise. If you take a step back and remind yourself that they’re not a bad person, you can disagree without being disagreeable.

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