Civil Conversations

Daryl Davis is a piano player. In 1983, he was playing country and western music in a bar in Virginia. A patron came up to him and remarked that it was the first time he had ever heard a black man play piano as well as Jerry Lee Lewis. Davis explained that Lewis had learned to play from black boogie woogie and blues piano players. The man was unconvinced. Davis explained that Jerry Lee was a friend of his, and the two had discussed his influences many times.

5159469189_c370510ed4_zThe two struck up a conversation, and the man admitted that he was a member of the KKK. Eventually, Davis met with several high-ranking klan members, and even befriended some of them. He found that many klansmen had strong, deep-seeded misconceptions about black people. By forging respectful relationships with them, he was able to counter the stereotypes. It’s harder to hate a group when you know and respect someone who is part of that group.

A few years ago, Davis told his story to Nick Van der Kolk on the excellent Love & Radio podcast.  You should invest 40 minutes and go listen to it. It’s a compelling and entertaining and amazing story. But when you’re done, come back. Because there’s more.

A couple weeks ago, Davis returned to Love & Radio. We seem to be in a world where there are more divisions among us than ever before. And he’s an expert at working to bridge those divides. So we should listen to what he has to say. Go listen to that one, too. Or, if you have to, just read my notes. These are Daryl Davis’s ideas, as told to Nick Van der Kolk, listened to by me, and summarized for you. So how do you have a civil conversation with someone you disagree with?

Do your homework. Before going in, know what their position is. Learn as much as you can about their argument, the reasons behind their beliefs. Ideally, you should be able to make their argument as well as you can make your own.

Have a conversation, not a debate. If you have a debate, it’s about convincing the other side that you’re right. It’s argumentative and confrontational , and it’s very unlikely that you’re going to be able to change their mind. Instead, invite them to have a conversation. Go in with the idea that you want to understand why they feel the way they do. Give them a safe space to explain themselves.

Look for common ground. You agree on something. You can find some area where you’re both on the same page. I was discussing the Affordable Care Act with someone a few months ago, and we were on diametrically opposite sides of the issue. Finally, I looked for common ground. “Can we agree,” I asked, “that when someone gets in a car accident and goes to the hospital, we’re not going to refuse to treat them?” He agreed. Great. All we need to do, then, is figure out how to pay for it. By finding some common ground, you start to build a connection. The more you do that, the less important the differences become.

Talking is not fighting. When you’re talking, you’re not fighting. You might become animated. There might be some yelling or fists pounding on the table. But there’s no violence. The violence doesn’t start until the talking stops. As long as you keep talking, you’re okay.

Be patient. You’re not going to convert someone overnight. Whatever the issue is, there are roots underneath it. You’re not going to spend an hour discussing abortion or immigration or social programs and convince them to change their mind. But maybe you can give them one thing that they’ll think about later. Give them one little reason to just move their position an inch. Be pro-active. Talk to people who disagree with you. Learn from them, and give them the opportunity to learn from you.

Avoid condescension. Don’t be insulting. You will hear opinions that you don’t like. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, and remember that you’re giving them a safe space to express them. But everyone is not entitled to their own facts. When they say something that is untrue, call them on it. Ask for evidence of their claim. Or, if you have evidence that counters their point, share it. Correct the facts, but don’t be mean about it.

I think maybe it’s time to venture out of our bubbles and echo chambers once in a while to try to have some real conversations. I’ll close my HuffPo and Mother Jones browser tabs for a little while. Maybe you can stop listening to Breitbart and Fox News for a couple hours. And we can look for common ground.

Photo credit: Martha Soukup on Flickr.

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Listen: We Need a Community

It’s a funny thing about social media. Sometimes, it can be kind of social.

That’s fantastic. It’s great for democracy. It’s a monumental shift in how information is managed. It changes the structure of power.

Everyone has the means to widely disseminate ideas. Everyone has the ability to engage in the conversation. Everyone can reach a global audience.

The gatekeepers are gone. No one is determining which ideas are good enough for wide distribution. No one is controlling the message.

The problem, though, is now that everyone has a voice, some people are choosing to use it. That, in itse

lf, is good. But we’ve lost much of the civility of engaging in the community. Somewhere along the way, everyone started talking and stopped listening.

A year or so ago, a social news experiment called Patch started to catch on. The idea was to fill the local news vacuum in small communities. Local editors were recruited to attend city council and school board meetings. They wrote of short pieces of a hyper-local nature. Readers were encouraged to participate. There were lots of open-ended questions and prompts for discussion. Residents could share their news as well. The editor curated the content, and through the comments, the whole community could participate.

Originally, Patch had a policy that required people to use their real names. They wanted you to participate, but they also wanted you to be accountable for your words. So users with anonymous handles were politely asked to add their names to their profiles. As time went on, this became harder and harder to enforce. At some point last summer, a policy change allowed people to be anonymous on Patch. Since they couldn’t enforce the rules, they changed them. Participation soared. Advertising revenue (I’m assuming) went up. All was good.

But the level of discourse took a nose dive. No longer hindered by their reputations, users migrated to extremes. The comments quickly devolved into pointless vitriol and personal attacks. I stopped commenting. Then, I stopped reading. It turns out that the allure of the anonymous megaphone is strong enough to overcome any sense of civic responsibility to the community.

We see that in other places as well. In January, I attended my third EduCon conference in Philadelphia. This is a co

nference of conversations, centered on getting smart people in the same place at the same time to discuss big issues in education. While the sessions are carefully planned by the facilitators, they involve an enormous degree of interactivity. There are no audience members. Everyone is a participant.

This year, for the first time, I saw participants with megaphones. Rather than respecting the norms of the community and participating in civil discourse around the topics of the sessions, a very small minority brought their own agendas, and attempted to steer every conversation toward their theses. Pearson is evil. Common Core will destroy American education. The Internet is full of predators and too dangerous for children to use. Fine. Bring your arguments. Let’s have a conversation. But it got to the point where nearly every session devolved into soapboxing by the same people on the same topics. That’s not respecting the community.

And now, this brings us to EdCamp. In a few weeks, we’re hosting this opportunity for anyone interested in education to come together to discuss the topics that are important to them. The attendees will determine the schedule for the day. You’ve probably already heard all about it. If you need more info or want to come, check out the web site.

But I’m worried about conversations being hijacked. EdCamp is a community of convenience. It’s not a place where the same group of people has been interacting and has formed a community with standards of behavior. Maybe it will become that some day, but right now, it’s just a diverse bunch of people. There’s already some evidence that a vocal minority is bringing megaphones to EdCamps with the goal of preaching their own personal Gospels.

We’re doing a few things to try to give everyone a voice. The web site is featuring a series of Participant Perspectives, highlighting people who are coming to EdCamp and giving some background about who they are and why they’re attending. The goal is to raise the level of discourse, and to highlight the diversity of the attendees. There are also some posts that go into more detail on what an unconference is, how the day will be structured, and what people can expect when they come. The idea is to build some expectations among the attendees, who are ultimately the only ones who can ensure that everyone has a voice. Finally, we’re not going to build the session schedule ahead of time. Over the last year or so, several EdCamps have opened the board a day or two in advance, so people can start scheduling sessions. This just encourages people to bring their leftover presentations from other conferences. While we may solicit ideas for topics ahead of time, nothing is going on the schedule until the day of the event.

All of this involves listening more than talking. The most important part of the conversation is not what you’re saying, but how you’re reacting to the things that others are saying. Sometimes, it’s easy to lose the conversation skills when there are so many megaphones around.

I hope that the education community can reach a level of civility and discourse that’s not being modeled in the wider society. I’m sure we’re up to the task. But we have to start by listening.

Photo credit: The Infatuated on Flickr.