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SMU Professor Teaches Students How To Dialogue Without Arguing


Most of us avoid difficult discussions about faith, politics and other touchy subjects and for good reason — who wants to get into an argument? SMU professor Jill DeTemple says those conversations are vital, and she's teaching students and academics around the country how to have them without fighting. She talked with KERA's Justin Martin. 

Interview Highlights

On how 'reflective structured dialogue' works:

So reflective structure dialogue is just exactly what it sounds like. You ask people to reflect before they speak, and then it is really highly structured. We time those periods of reflection will say take 90 seconds to reflect and then everyone going around the circle will have about 90 seconds to say something that they've already thought about in that period of reflection.

So, that allows them to speak something maybe a little more articulately or clearly, it also allows everyone else to listen because they are not desperately trying to think of something to say. 

On how listening and understanding are crucial:

I think people both want to be heard and they also want to understand other people.

There are two principles we talk about when we craft communication agreements in a class before we'd ever do one of these dialogues. We come to agreements about how we will be together and that would allow me as a facilitator to intervene if I see somebody violating one of those agreements.

One of the things we talk about is speaking to be understood and listening to understand. And what we've found is that people really do have a deep need to be understood and then they also understand that to be understood somebody has to listen to them.

So one way we craft those agreements is to actually say, 'How do you know someone's listening to you? What does that look like? What does it feel like?' And then how could we translate that into a sort of code of conduct for the course.

On what those agreements usually contain:

You know it's everything from listening with respect and resilience to not interrupting. Because I think the way the reason these work partially is that people are prepared for them.

It's a very structured environment. And so they start to check their own reactions a little bit. They get used to really being aware of how they're reacting to someone. 

On what's involved with their research: 

So we want to do more research, and I'm currently looking actively looking for funding for more research. And 'we' here is my partners that are Essential Partners,which is a nonprofit in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Those are the folks who actually pioneered this method.

One thing I would like to do is actually just in the Dallas area; is a comparative study between SMU students and then going to UNT Dallas and also Paul Quinn College; trying the same techniques in those classrooms because that would really diversify our pool about how this works, say, if you if you are a racial minority. I mean, is that different on different kinds of college campuses? So Paul Quinn is a really small, historically black college vs UNT Dallas, which is really urban still really diverse, but a large public where a lot of people commute in. 

On the toughest topic she's dealt with:

Race. It's hard to get a really good question around race that everybody can have a common enough experience with to answer.

So one of the reasons I got into this was I had sent students out to take pictures of borders and boundaries on campus as part of an ethnographic exercise, and when they came back and we put these pictures up and most of them were pretty obvious about why it was a border or boundary.

There was like a picture of a Maserati next to beat up Honda, and there was a picture of our engineering building that make it look like some impenetrable fortress. And then one of our African American students in the class just had a picture of a campus police vehicle, and it was pretty clear that the white students in the class had no idea why it was there. And this is about four weeks after Ferguson.

I tried to say, 'So I think we ought to talk about this,' and I couldn't get it going, and I've had a couple of moderately failed dialogues around race. It's really, really tough to find a way where people can both self-identify and then sort of do that crossing over across difference there, and we're getting better at making those questions but I think that's a place where I still got a ways to go. 

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

Jill DeTemple is a Professor of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University 

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.