I have an unusual hobby: asking random strangers about warm and fuzzy topics such as religion and politics. Where’s the best place to do that? Airplanes. Airplanes are perfect for such a conversation since your fellow passengers are stuck with you once they’re buckled in. I like to start off with something like, “Hi. I’m Tyson. Whom did you vote for?” At this point, our stranger has a choice to make: Engage in dialogue or try to avoid the topic for the 1 – 4-hour duration of our relationship. (If I’m in a talkative mood, ignoring me won’t be easy.)
Why do I do this? The US political conversation is in rough shape. Strong opinions are everywhere, and even facts are no longer agreed upon. Plenty of us seem willing to talk, but listeners are in short supply. Perhaps even more troublesome in the long-term is that we sometimes choose to stay silent rather than risk an argument by even expressing our views. This leads to isolated silos of opinion, sometimes referred to as being in the liberal or conservative “bubble.”
Campus advisors all over the country tell me that students are “in the bubble” on all sorts of issues. The trend over time is that they are less and less likely to have any difficult conversations – not just political, but personal too – with anyone. Instead many simply take the easy way out and gossip with a friend, rather than productively address a disagreement or conflict. This leaves us with a lack of basic dialogue skills, making it impossible to bridge the divide and solve problems together. Coming to an agreement isn’t always necessary, but ask yourself: Can you sit with someone and listen to his or her radically different view on issues such as gun control, marriage equality, immigration policy, abortion, and faith, without making value judgments about them? Can you take in and evaluate their position, or do you just seem to get angry?
College should be a place and time for challenging one’s nascent views. Peers, staff, and professors provide a valuable service by disagreeing, making you explain where you’re coming from. Before going to college, my opinions were little more than a childish version of my parents’ beliefs, plus a few things I had heard on TV. I was quite confident (and dead wrong) on a number of issues ranging from politics to research to educational philosophy. The process of challenging beliefs started in college and will continue until the day I die. It continues to refine my perspective a great deal. Without it, my worldview would still be based more on opinion than fact.
More than ever, students today need a method and a forum for disagreement and civil debate. At first, it’s a stressful part of my programs, but students and staff alike are routinely amazed at how quickly the group can listen, understand, and find some common ground where once there was only strife. Sometimes people even [gasp!] change their minds. Once you’re using the listening skillset, then any disagreement is the beginning of a substantive conversation, rather than the end. This is vital to our society. We can’t afford to let tomorrow’s decision makers graduate college without the ability and desire to listen, agree and disagree, and find solutions to the problems we face.
To learn more about Tyson Wooters and his newest keynote, Talk, Don’t Shout, visit campuspeak.com/wooters.