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BW expands effort to promote 'dialogue across differences'

Students in a political science class piloted a series of workshops this semester, offering input for a fall rollout in all First-Year Experience (FYE) courses.

Students in a discussion group

BW students practice dialogue and listening skills. Pictured, starting lower left, clockwise, are Lilly Engelhart '24, a political science major from Hiram, Ohio; Shekinah Crawford '25, a political science major from Cleveland; Madalyn Dietrich '25, a sociology major from Brunswick, Ohio, and Ethan McKinney '25, a political science major from Indianapolis.

A growing partnership that builds sympathetic listening and dialogue skills is reaching an increasing number of students and faculty at Baldwin Wallace University with plans to embed depolarization activities in all first-year experience (FYE) courses this fall.

As a part of that movement, Dr. Lauren Copeland, founding director of BW's Democracy and Civility Initiative, enlisted students in a spring political science research course to test various models for promoting civil discourse.

Students are surprised by what they learn when they stop to listen to the "other side" rather than jumping to conclusions.

Jillian Smith '25, a political science major from Chesterland, Ohio, recalled, "When I talked with my partner in class, he was a conservative … so, when I asked about immigration, I was ready to hear an out-of-pocket statement. Instead, he shocked me and said he supported it. He then explained how his family employs a lot of immigrants and is close to them. I would not have known this information if it had not been for bridging the divide and learning about one another."

Developing core competency

The work by Copeland's students is an extension of the Democracy & Civility partnership that Copeland took from a classroom exercise into a partnership with Braver Angels Ohio and cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer.

The initiative has drawn the attention of a variety of news media, including WEWS-TV. "It's a really different approach," Copeland told Cleveland Magazine for another report. "It's listening to understand instead of listening to argue."

The plan now is to bake the skills into BW's new core curriculum, which will be rolling out to incoming students in the fall. "A distinct part of the Baldwin Wallace education is that they will be a depolarizing force in the world," BW Core Director Dr. Indira Gesink told cleveland.com following a workshop earlier this year.

Students evaluating the approaches are reporting profound changes.

Differentiating people and opinions

Braver Angels workshop at BW

Carolyn Brommer leads a Braver Angels workshop, "Depolarizing Within," in early February at Baldwin Wallace University.

Shekinah Crawford '25, a political science major from Cleveland, used to avoid conversations with people who held opposing political views and had "difficulty differentiating a person and their opinions." 

"I believed anyone who did not share my political views was terrible," she explained. "After the [Braver Angels] workshop, I could see the different layers of those around me and even agreed with them on specific issues. I am more comfortable with taking a step back and trying to understand that an individual's lived experience impacts their political views. I am now pushing myself to actively listen and understand different perspectives instead of trying to convince the other person what they should believe."

Many of the skills take persistence and practice, but some are simple, such as replacing the word "but" with "and" to lower the temperature in difficult conversations.

Crawford concludes, "This practice made me realize how saying "and" allows both the other person to feel heard and for me to consider why they hold those views instead of judging them. This workshop helped me see the humanity in those who do not share the same political views that I do."

Listening and letting go

Lilly Engelhart '24, a political science major from Hiram, Ohio, found the listening skills to be especially challenging. 

"Even though I consider myself a good listener when someone is spewing certain rhetoric at me, I usually only focus on my own rebuttal or why they are wrong," she reflected. "So, it was a really interesting exercise to practice listening to the other side to paraphrase their point."  

Ethan McKinney '25, a political science major from Indianapolis, cites a key takeaway as "letting go of certain expectations" up front. 

"The guide explicitly states that you should not expect to persuade others to change their core beliefs or assume they will match your openness," he recalled. "Abandoning these assumptions is imperative. I must accept that even if I listen empathetically and communicate respectfully, the other person may remain entrenched in their opposing viewpoint. However, the skills covered still enable a thoughtful exchange of perspectives."

Easing in

Dr. Lauren Copeland and students

Dr. Lauren Copeland (center wearing all black) and students in her spring 2024 Public Interest Research class.

As they evaluated the workshops for use in all future BW FYE courses, many of the students, like Madalyn Dietrich '25, a sociology major from Brunswick, Ohio, recommended using lower-risk topics for practice at first.

"I would recommend starting out on topics removed from politics," Dietrich wrote. "I found in trying to juggle around between red and blue perspectives, I wasted brain bandwidth working on what each side would respond to the statement rather than letting skills take the forefront in an organic conversation."

Classroom, workplace, dinner table

For Copeland, who started the initiative to foster healthy classroom debate, the early results are exciting.

"Not only are my classroom experiences richer, but many of my students report that these skills help them navigate difficult conversations outside the classroom with friends, family and work colleagues. These are critical life skills, and I'm happy to be part of a movement that aims to bridge those divisions."

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