Structured civic dialogues ask students to lean in and listen

March 29, 2017

Every day, we see reminders of how civil political discourse has broken down in American society. 

Since the 2016 election, Penn GSE professor Jonathan Zimmerman, and Harris Sokoloff and Chris Satullo of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, have been thinking of ways to get Americans talking again. 

Harris Sokoloff of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement at Penn GSE speaks with project consultant Chris Satullo prior to the second of two forums discussing the 2016 election results with Penn and Cairn University students.

Sokoloff and Satullo say that you don’t need a moderator to have a meaningful conversation with someone of differing political views. But they offer five basic rules that will help you out.

1)   Listen. It’s as important as talking.
2)   Make room for everyone to speak.
3)   Be honest, but not cruel.
4)   Ask questions — to understand, not to rebut or defeat.
5)   Don’t feel you need to resolve a disagreement. Instead, explore it.

Earlier this semester, Zimmerman worked with faculty from Cairn University to organize a pair of listening sessions — one on each campus — where students could discuss their politics and the values that underpin them. Sokoloff and Satullo structured the two-hour events so students could understand both their shared values and the thinking behind the areas where they might disagree.

Cairn, formerly Philadelphia Bible College, is a Christian school where many students consider themselves conservative, though students said there was support for President Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and independent Evan McMullin in the November election. Most of the Penn students who attended the events said they were liberal and voted Clinton in November.

 “Things would be a lot better in general if more people had this sort of discourse, where people felt comfortable sharing, and [where] listening became more important than proving your point,” Penn GSE student Sarah Murphy told the Philadelphia Inquirer.