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Look for the “why” when engaging in disagreement

“Bought sense is better than borrowed sense” lives in my memory, rent-free. I’ve always cringed at it because, at every stage of life, some lessons have been costly to learn.

At the Alluvial Collective, we show up to the office, on the screen, or in a community with one overarching challenge: to create or deepen the connections that will support collective thriving.  That is our “For what.”  We get to show up with wisdom purchased over our organization’s last 25 years of work and with wisdom borrowed from many generations and traditions.  In most traditions, self-reflection and stories reveal the path to where we should go and how we should travel.

As you engage in the National Week of Conversation, here are a couple of stories and a few thoughts to help you show up for each other, our communities, and our country.

What Do You Need

The first story emerges from a book called “Getting To Yes,” about negotiating.

Two people were arguing over an orange, and after some time, they decided to split it in half, feeling that equal parts were fair, like in elementary school. Before splitting the orange, they never asked each other the reason the other wanted it. As it turns out, one wanted the orange peel to flavor a cake, and the other wanted the orange’s “meat” to eat.

In another story, an arriving house guest is deeply offended by their host’s demand that they remove their shoes upon entering their family home. The visit goes off the rails and probably off the porch, too.

Each of these stories reminds you of tensions and dilemmas that are all too familiar in our families, towns, and – for me – our leadership discourse.  We have notions about what the other person, or people, want, but at critical points, we need more humanizing insight into what makes it essential to them.

The Cost of Wisdom

In the second story, the home’s foyer had a large rug on its floor that had been in the family for generations.  Understanding that, I would have offered to remove my shoes.

We benefit from being curious about the interests, the “for what” the other person engages with, rather than just the “what” or their position. It may seem inefficient, but it pales compared to the value curiosity brings to relationships. Good relationships are win-win; our team leans on telling and hearing stories to build relationships. They are the wellspring of “for whats” and “whys.”

The truthful stories that your neighbor or coworker tells to you and themselves comprise reality as they see it.  Your stories teach your in-laws and teammates history from your the learned or experienced vantage point. Dialogue and stories make our actions and attitudes make sense.  This is where trust begins to form.

Dialogue over Debates and Diatribes. 

As you begin your week, remember that how we engage matters as much as why.  Diatribes and speeches don’t make us good neighbors, and debates require someone to lose.  We like authentic connections and hearing familiar themes in the stories of others.  This week, open and honest dialogue is the strategy; to thrive together should always be the goal. We’ve paid too much for everything else.

Talk more; proclaim less. It’s one of our mottos here at The Center for Practical Ethics (TCPE). Put another way, we might say our goal is to foster conversations rather than diatribes. This task is more difficult than most realize. What we know as ethicists is that merely having conversations isn’t enough. There’s a wide variety of skills needed for fruitful dialogue to take place, and some are harder to come by than others. 

The ideal conversation partner is curious and humble, able to actively listen, knowledgeable about his or her own positions, familiar with basic principles of logical argument, charitable when interpreting claims, and—most importantly—willing to be wrong. Our work centers around equipping students with these skills and helping them navigate the complex ethical issues within our society’s most contentious disagreements. 

This year, National Week of Conversations (NWoC) coincided with Ethics Week here at the University of Mississippi (UM). Many of our events are conversation-based because dialogue is the best way to evaluate the ideas of others and open ourselves up to new information and interpretation of facts, while gaining a better understanding of our own views. 

Two of our events in particular are worth examining more closely to see why NWoC and the work we do at TCPE are critical for sustaining civil society and the myriad public goods we all take for granted. First is our signature Just Conversations event. Students are placed in small groups and given a couple of ethical dilemmas to discuss. Trained student moderators guide the discussion to point out important aspects of the dilemmas, such as logical fallacies, analysis of stakeholders, ethical concepts and assumptions, and varying methods to achieve goals. Students often discover they agree with others—on the dilemma outcome and the details—far more than they expected.

Second, we have invited free speech scholar Sigal Ben-Porath to give a talk about her new book Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy. Ben-Porath contends that universities are laboratories of democracy where students must learn to engage with disagreement. If the university is to be a place where truth is discovered, it must take seriously its historic social and educational obligation to train students in the skills needed for civil discourse and critical thinking. Her work is especially relevant in our ever more polarized times. 

What these events demonstrate is that conversations—that is, engaged and fruitful conversations—must take place at all levels. Students must learn to talk to students just as much as faculty must learn to talk to faculty and administrators to administrators. What’s more, these groups must talk to each other because while each of us have a role within academia (faculty, staff, student, dean, vice chancellor, etc.), we are also all citizens who work and live together.

Policies must be made, votes cast, businesses founded, churches attended, friendships established, and life lived. TCPE focuses on the skills of civil discourse by providing opportunities to cultivate those skills through Ethics Week, and highlights conversations that ask us to reflect on the role of universities as part of the NWoC.

Join us at Noon on Friday, April 19 for a VIRTUAL lunch and learn session exploring tools to make us better listeners, and in turn, better equipped to engage in meaningful conversations across differences.

The session will be led by Dr. Graham Bodie, professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Media and Communication in the School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi.

This event is free and open to the public. Register to receive more information.

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