By Tamra Wright, Lecturer and Intergroup Dialogue Facilitator, O’Neill IUPUI
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “people fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
To combat fear—an emotion so powerful in its ability to paralyze and divide—we must communicate through meaningful and sustained dialogue. The most important conversations are often the hardest to have. It’s easier to avoid them, especially if the topics are sensitive and uncomfortable. But avoidance does little to quell the fears that exist when it comes to communicating across differences and engaging in difficult conversations.
To have those conversations, it’s important to first understand the difference between dialogue, discussion, and debate. This is especially critical as students return to college campuses and online platforms, where they will no doubt encounter challenging topics.
Debate vs. discussion vs. dialogue
Everywhere we turn today, we see people debating each other. In a debate, participants listen so they can defend their own position and eventually win the argument. Discussion, meanwhile, allows different sides to present their ideas and perspectives on a given topic to persuade others that their position is right. In contrast to both of these, the goal of dialogue is unique. Dialogue broadens our perspective instead of simply presenting ideas; it listens with an intent to learn; it creates a space for questions on the path to social and self-awareness. This approach is the foundation of any Intergroup Dialogue, including IUPUI’s interdisciplinary undergraduate Intergroup Dialogue Certificate. The Intergroup Dialogue model is designed to help others learn how to communicate across diverse social identities.
In my Diversity Issues in Criminal Justice course (SPEA J-275), I use this model to help students have difficult conversations by pushing them to think critically, understand diverse perspectives, and engage in civil discourse around diverse issues impacting the criminal justice system. The model encourages students to explore differences while finding common ground. Whether we’re covering police funding or the power of protest, fostering an environment that invites students to communicate across differences while they work through conflict and difficult situations is key to understanding diverse perspectives.
Intergroup Dialogue courses can help
Intergroup Dialogues are usually face-to-face facilitated conversations between members of different social identity groups, yet anyone can use the model to develop critical communication skills that are necessary both inside and outside of the classroom. In trying to communicate across our differences and engage in ongoing and meaningful dialogue, I often use the skills I’ve developed as an Intergroup Dialogue facilitator to effectively communicate in all facets of my life by applying the model’s four stages:
Stage 1: Creating shared meaning
In the first stage, the focus is on the creation of shared meaning, which can help establish connections and cultivate relationships. This stage emphasizes the importance of seeking clarity to avoid misunderstandings; allowing for space and time to listen, hear, and learn; and using the appropriate body language, word choice, and tone of voice.
Stage 2: Examine identity
In the second stage, the focus is on examining identity. Self-reflection pushes us to examine our own identity and can make us more mindful of diverse perspectives and experiences. This stage emphasizes the importance of reflection, sharing with and listening to others, and learning and applying what has been shared.
Stage 3: Difficult conversations
In the third stage, the focus is on having difficult conversations. Making space and time to engage with others matters. This stage emphasizes the importance of communicating with honesty and respect in the face of differences. Building bridges and sharpening skills in empathy, active thinking, and openness are key to effective communication in difficult conversations.
Stage 4: Building alliances
In the fourth stage of Intergroup Dialogue, the focus is on building alliances. Not only is important to connect across differences but to commit to continued dialogue. This stage emphasizes engaging with diverse individuals and groups in a number of spaces and to use power responsibly to work towards change.
Each of these stages teaches us critical lessons. We find that, in communicating, it is important to:
- Consider how your body language and tone can either enhance or hamper a conversation.
- Examine identity and the role it may or may not play in our openness to diverse perspectives.
- Be both honest and respectful in conversations; doing so can build bridges across differences.
- Have a sustained commitment to an ongoing dialogue that leads to growth.
Regardless of whether we find ourselves on a college campus or online course, back in our work environment, or simply in a conversation with family or friends, adhering to these principles of dialogue will lay the groundwork for better understanding each other and creating a better future together.