Are We Listening? My Semester as a Civic Dialogue Fellow | St. Lawrence University

Are We Listening? My Semester as a Civic Dialogue Fellow

Monday, February 1, 2021

Whether we like it or not, politics has seeped into every aspect of our lives. But having political conversations with our family and friends has become an activity that no one wants to indulge in. Why is that? Why do we feel so powerless to have a conversation with someone we might disagree with? In early September, Associate Professor of History Mary Jane Smith and Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs, Karl Schonberg, offered me and six of my peers the opportunity to become Civic Dialogue Fellows. The fellowship took place throughout the entirety of the 2020 fall semester and allowed us to try and promote, as well as facilitate, fruitful civic discussions across political differences at SLU.

Over the course of the semester, we met as a group to learn how to mediate civic discussions among our peers. Our training consisted of a variety of workshops that aimed to educate us on what productive civic discussions look like as well as what they do not look like. One of the goals of our training was for each of us to create our own project to run in the campus community. Although most of my peers were able to quickly develop projects, I initially struggled determining what I wanted to do.

I recall a meeting where each fellow discussed the status of our projects. One of the projects that caught the attention of my peers related to publishing anonymous Op-Ed pieces in St. Lawrence’s student newspaper, The Hill News. The project sparked a constructive conversation about whether there is a line between voicing one’s opinion and hurting others, specifically regarding journalism. During the exchange, I sat in front of my laptop, listening to what others had to say. At this point, I knew exactly what I wanted to get from this fellowship. I wanted to work on actively listening and constructing my ideas without jumping to interject my opinion in group conversations, and then share what I learned with others.

As your typical extrovert, I always tried to be a prominent voice in interactions with friends or in the classroom, so internalizing my opinions rather than expressing them was different and challenging for me. Throughout high school and my time so far at SLU, I’ve held various leadership roles. I’ve felt responsibility to lead discussions and immediately offer my opinions in participatory settings, especially when others were hesitant to jump in.

I worked hard to remain quietly engaged during conversations with friends and classmates so I could focus on listening to what they were saying. I vividly recall eating dinner with five of my friends in the Winston Room about a week before the 2020 presidential election when a conversation surrounding the current state of American politics arose. The conversation started off light before turning into a friendly argument, with participants sharing views from across the political spectrum. Through the heated part of the discussion, I observed how my friends were expressing disagreement before even allowing one another to finish what they were saying. Conversations like these demonstrate just how much we talk over one another, and how little we actually listen to one another within the St. Lawrence community.

There is a lot of work to be done, and active listening is just one crucial part of the overarching solution to healing political divisiveness in our communities. We can and must do better in challenging ourselves to think differently and learn to listen to one another. To get started, here are a few of the key takeaways from my time as a Civic Dialogue Fellow:

  1. When conversations arise among friends and peers, I urge individuals to take time to stop and listen—really listen—to what others have to say before contributing their own opinions. Think about what is being said instead of racing to share your ideas.
  2. Within these conversations, aim to build trust with whomever you are conversing with by truly digesting their words. This looks like putting your phone down, not looking around/having side conversations, and not making disrespectful physical or facial expressions that make you seem disinterested. Showing interest is an essential piece that demonstrates you actually are focused on what someone has to say.
  3. Rather than surrounding yourself with those who reaffirm your opinions and beliefs, seek out individuals who differ from you. Perhaps you will still disagree with them, but you will have given them the gift of listening, and hopefully really hearing what they have to say.