Remaining neutral in an intense discussion isn’t the normal course of action for Fourth Former Faith Onyechere. “I have very strong convictions,” explained Onyechere, an active participant in talks around the Humanities table. But the teen put aside her opinions to co-moderate a group discussion among her peers as part of Living in Community (LINC) Day programming dedicated to civil discourse. “Being a facilitator caused me to internalize more because I had to focus on being a neutral mediator and guide dialogue rather than be a participant,” she said. “It allowed me to sit back and allow other people to share.”
To learn how to better engage with those of dissenting opinions, students invited a facilitator from New Hampshire Listens, a civic engagement program within the Carsey School for Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), for a School-wide tutorial on the tenets of constructive dialogue and its importance in building democracy and an inclusive community.
“We are in an era of immoveable disagreement on issues such as political identity and race,” explained Quixada Moore-Vissing, the NH Listens fellow who led the day’s training. “It’s fracturing our communities and hurting our civic life. We need to do community problem solving with each other. The way to do that is through dialogue so we can make decisions in a collaborative session, not in silos.”
In her work, Moore-Vissing travels across the state to teach residents how to engage in productive discussions on divisive topics. One method she utilizes is the concept of slow democracy; taking the time to talk face-to-face with others. In that spirit, student LINC leaders and prefects, along with faculty members, participated in group training with Moore-Vissing before the day’s programming began. They would go on to serve as neutral moderators in 38 small group sessions with their peers to discuss hotly debated topics within the School community.
The path to productive dialogue is often misunderstood, explained Moore-Vissing. "Dialogue is not a casual exchange about the weather; it is not a debate," she said. "It's about listening and being heard and learning about other people. It's not consensus building." To navigate these complex discussions, Moore-Vissing suggests setting ground rules within the group before engaging, such as sticking to facts and figures and speaking for oneself and not for others. Facilitators help participants navigate conversations by redirecting them to these points when the discussion goes astray.
Students and faculty put these tips to use within their group meetings focused on issues such as hierarchy and political diversity within the community, and the role of shared governance in creating School policies. "I see myself using the skills I learned today to create better conversations both at SPS and in society," said Fifth Former and group facilitator Elena Guild. "I'm going to listen more openly to all the opinions that I encounter and use it as an opportunity to learn about why people stand one way or another."