Chapter 8: Thinking, Communicating & Problem-Solving

Civil Discourse & Conflict Resolution

Learning through diversity

One of the great things about being a college student is meeting new people who have different thoughts, dreams, experiences, and ways of life. Discussing topics with people who have multiple viewpoints can be an enriching experience from which we learn as much or more about ourselves than we do about the topic. Think about times you have learned or worked with people who had different backgrounds. What insights into your own attitudes, behaviors, or values have you gained through interactions with others different from yourself? Think of specific aspects of yourself that you have come to view in a new light.

Civil Discourse in the Classroom

With a continuous news cycle, constant connections to technology, and an ever-increasing number of social media platforms, we live in a time when information is all around us, and that information is often tailored to our preferences. We have the ability to surround ourselves with a 24/7 stream of information that represents our views and reinforces our beliefs. The Internet offers a space where anyone can have an audience, regardless of how accurately or civilly they portray their ideas. Instead of the Internet encouraging us to collaborate and seek out different perspectives, are we only looking for views that match our own? Are we advocating that the loudest and most outlandish voices are the only ones that get heard?

In contrast to trends in how many are consuming information, college classrooms are intended to be safe places where students can share ideas, try out new perspectives, and exchange opinions without fear. The arguing and debating in college classrooms is sometimes referred to as civil discourse. This discourse is more than just sharing our personal experiences and opinions; rather, informed, civil discourse that expands and enriches our perspectives is the goal of engaging in discussions and debates in the college classroom.

As you engage in these classroom discussions, keep in mind the three parts of an argument by using the acronym, ARE:

  • Assertion–the opinion or perspective you are presenting
  • Reasoning–the logic you use
  • Evidence–the data, expert opinion, or first hand knowledge that supports your perspective

Communicating opinions

Part of how you feel about arguing is based on your experiences discussing topics with family, friends, classmates, and coworkers in the past. Consider the following questions and reflect on your comfort level with discussing sometimes controversial topics:

  • What experiences have you had with communicating your opinion or defending your point of view?
  • Did you have opportunities in previous educational settings or on the job?
  • Did you grow up in a household where current events were discussed at the dinner table?
  • Did your family watch the news?
  • Was your family open to many lifestyle choices or were only traditional lifestyle choices accepted?
  • Have you been taught to boldly express your ideas or keep your thoughts private?
  • Have you been taught to support your positions with logic and evidence?
  • Has disagreeing been encouraged or frowned upon?

Based on your answers, do you think you are comfortable with controversial classroom debates or is this an area in which you will need to challenge yourself to grow?

While others are speaking, listen carefully for their assertion, reasoning, and evidence. It’s also helpful to paraphrase what they’re saying into your own words and ask if you have an accurate understanding of their position.

Three E’s for Effective Interactions

Whatever your natural inclinations are, you can learn how to communicate more effectively with others and foster supportive interactions. We can have more effective interactions by engaging in the following three behaviors:

  1. Examine your reservations
  2. Engage with others
  3. Expand your social circle

Everybody feels shy or insecure from time to time, but if you feel inhibited by your shyness, it may be because you’ve developed certain habits of thought that don’t serve your best interests anymore. Maybe you’re not shy, but instead anxious, worried about saying the wrong thing, or uncomfortable in new situations. Whatever their source, examining your reservations can help you move past them so you can engage with others and expand your social circle.

Examine Your Reservations

Below are some strategies to help you examine reservations you may have about engaging in social activities:

  • Change ideas and thoughts: In our busy lives, it’s not always easy to be aware of our thoughts, especially habitual thoughts that sometimes lurk behind others. If we make a point to listen to our thoughts, we may discover some that we’d like to change. If you can recognize thoughts you’d like to change, you can train yourself in new directions. One method is to close your eyes and visualize the negative thought. Then, let it slowly dissolve until it disappears completely.
  • Turn a negative thought into a constructive thought: If you find yourself thinking that you’re not suited to join a group that interests you, turn this thought into a positive one by saying, “I am an interesting person, and I have a lot to offer and share.” This affirmation is true! You might want to come up with three or more replacement thoughts.
  • Acknowledge that everyone is unique: Everybody experiences high and low points in life. Even if we cannot change external circumstances, we can change our perceptions and attitudes. A happy attitude will always serve you well. According to Abraham Lincoln, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

Engage with Others

Below are some strategies to help you engage with others no matter where you happen to be:

  • Smile: One of the easiest ways to compel yourself into socializing is to smile. Smiling can instantly make you feel more positive. It also draws other people to you.
  • Use welcoming body language: If you are at a social gathering, be aware of your body language. Does it signal that you are approachable? Make eye contact with people, give them a small wave or a nod, and look in front of you instead of at your feet or at the floor. When you look happy and ready to talk, people are more likely to come up to you.
  • Be aware of your cell phone and other electronic devices: If you look busy, people won’t want to interrupt you. Your body language should say that you are ready to interact.
  • Be genuine: Whether you are talking to an old friend or somebody you have just met, show genuine interest in the conversation. Being fully engaged shows that you are compassionate and makes for more stimulating and fulfilling interactions with others.
  • Keep conversations balanced: Ask people questions about themselves. Show that you care by asking others to share.
  • Be open-minded: The old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is relevant here. Someone you’re ambivalent about could end up being your best friend. Give yourself a chance to get to know others. What interests might you share? What can you learn from others?

Expand Your Social Circle

Below are some strategies to help you reach out and expand your social circle:

  • Offer invitations: As you reach out to others, others will be more likely to reciprocate and reach out to you. Call old friends you haven’t seen in a while and set up a time to get together. Invite a friend to the movies, a baseball game, a concert, or other activity. Consider having a party and telling your friends to bring guests.
  • Accept more invitations: Granted, there are only so many hours in the day for socializing. But if you’re in the habit of turning down invitations, try to make a point to accept some, even if the invitation is to attend something out of your comfort zone. You might even want to make a habit of arbitrarily saying yes three times for every one time you say no.
  • Join a club or group with like-minded people: Making new friends and expanding your social network can be accomplished by joining a club or group. Although clubs are often a good avenue to explore your interests, you may want to consider joining a group focused on something different from what you’re used to doing so you can learn something new with others.
  • Meet mutual friends: Meeting friends of friends is one of the easiest ways to meet new people. Try to view every person you meet in your life as a doorway into a new social circle and a possible friend.
  • Look for unique opportunities to be social: This can be as simple as starting a conversation with a checkout clerk, asking, “How’s your day going?” instead of remaining quiet.

Communicating to Break Down Barriers

As mentioned in the previous chapter, bias is a tendency or preference for or against a person or idea, and they can become a barrier to effective communication.

Discovering our biases is one way we can become more self-aware. Making the time to explore our own cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes and reminding ourselves we have judgments that are based on our own experiences can help prepare us for communicating effectively within a diverse, global society. Self-awareness is the first step toward cultural competence, which can be defined as the ability to communicate and interact with people of different cultures.

Beyond getting to know yourself better, you can increase cultural competence by:

  • Learning about different cultures
  • Interacting with diverse groups
  • Attending campus and community events
  • Developing empathy

According to the Greater Good Magazine: Science Based Insights for a Meaningful Life, there are six habits of highly empathetic people (HEP) that can be applied to help us develop empathy:

  1. Cultivate Curiosity about Strangers: strive to be naturally curious about the people who cross your path. Strike up conversations by asking questions that uncover their human experience. They look for opportunities to engage with others and learn more about them.
  2. Challenge Prejudices and Uncover Commonalities: It is a natural tenancy to categorize people, but look to challenge your own assumptions by focusing on how you are like others.
  3. Try Another Person’s Life: Look for ways to experience life from another person’s perspective, such as spending time living in the same environment, volunteering, attending cultural events, or going to a different church.
  4. Listen Hard and Open Up: By listening for what’s really important and making ourselves vulnerable, we can connect with others about what is really important about what they believe and experience.
  5. Inspire Mass Action and Social Change: Come to understand that empathy can inspire action for the greater good.
  6. Develop an Ambitious Imagination: Developing a big imagination can help us move beyond empathizing comfortably to challenging ourselves to empathize with people who hold opposite beliefs. Doing so helps us develop tolerance and create strategies for discussing issues.

As you watch the following video think about how quick judgment got in the way of communication. How did the characters in the video problem-solve to communicate?

Communication Strategies for Effective Interactions

The groups we belong to give us a sense of belonging and identity in the world and at the same time can encourage us to develop an us versus them mentality. If we focus on who is in the group and who is out, we may find ourselves stereotyping those not in the group with us. It is part of being human to organize people into groups to help us better understand the world (men and women, teacher and student, old and young, for example), but we need to step back from those categories to be sure we are not exaggerating the differences and forming stereotypes about members of different groups. Stereotyping and discrimination can be especially harmful when one group has more privilege than another.

Raising the B.A.R.

One way we can raise the bar in our conversations is to make a purposeful change in the way we communicate. Sometimes when we discuss issues with others we can have the tendency to react to what’s being said and perhaps attack ideas or personalities. Instead, we should work on breathing, acknowledging, and then responding. Acknowledging does not mean that we agree, only that we understand the other point of view.

In order to change our communication style, we need to have emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is recognizing, understanding, and managing our emotions. When we have high emotional intelligence, we understand that our moods, feelings, attitudes are temporary and based on context. Emotional intelligence is helpful in all types of communication, and it can be developed. Someone with high emotional intelligence displays the following qualities: they think about their feelings, they pause and think before they speak, they accept feedback and constructive criticism, they are empathetic, they strive to be authentic, they give helpful feedback, they avoid hurtful relationships, and they help others. Emotionally intelligent people value the importance of effective communication and work to minimize and correct any form of miscommunication.

Think about these questions as you watch the following video about miscommunication. What is the difference between the transmission model and the transactional model? What metaphor does the video use for communication? What tips does the video offer to communicate better?

Conflict Resolution Strategies

Occasionally, despite our best intentions, misunderstandings and conflicts with others can occur, but remaining logical and following the tenets of civil discourse can diffuse these situations and result in a deeper appreciation for the perspectives of others. When faced with problems communicating with others, listen actively to understand the position of others, be open to a variety of solutions, and make it clear you are seeking a positive resolution that respects the opinions of all involved.

According to MindTools, six steps can help us resolve conflict and reduce miscommunication.

  1. Make Relationships a Priority: Be sure those you live and work with know that relationships are important to you and you want to work through the conflict respectfully to avoid any aggression.
  2. Separate People from Problems: Recognize that usually, we all have some responsibility in creating a conflict, so it is best to solve the problem by working together instead of focusing on individual personalities.
  3. Listen Carefully to Different Interests: To ensure that the conflict is really understood, it is important to let everyone involved be heard. Actively listen by looking at the speaker, nodding, waiting to speak, and repeating their perspective in your own words. Avoid blame, and ask for cooperation in solving the problem.
  4. Listen First, Talk Second: Listen with empathy by actively trying to see the perspective from the speaker’s point of view. Focus on the facts and not on the personality of the speaker. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements, and encourage speakers to clearly label their emotions. (Active listening is explored more in chapter 7.) Remain open and flexible about the situation.
  5. Set out the Facts: Work on getting an agreement on the problem to be solved and the relevant facts. If you can’t come to a full agreement on the problem, try to understand others’ perceptions of the problem.
  6. Explore the Options: At this point, all involved should understand the issue better. Work collaboratively to find a solution where everyone wins at least a little if possible, and/or look to make changes that will avoid this problem in the future.

This optional, interactive quiz provides insights into some typical conflicts college students may face:



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