Student Guide to
Healthy Dialog & Debate
Tips for Effective Communication & Disagreeing Respectfully in College

Meet the Experts

Dr. Elizabeth Dudash-Buskirk Read bio
Tyler Unsell Read bio

Written by…

Katy McWhirter Read bio

Healthy communication is at the core of how a civil society survives and thrives, but it’s also hard work, as evidenced by the current political climate. While students may have encountered ideas and/or classmates whose views they didn’t agree with in high school, college is a time where students are asked to both validate their existing beliefs and be open to new ones. The following guide takes a look at how to approach disagreements and debates when a healthy outcome is desired, provides strategies for beneficial communication, and offers expert advice and insight on how to navigate arguments.

College Students & Exposure to New Belief Systems

When graduating high school and preparing for college, students have lots to think about: living with a roommate, choosing classes, navigating a new space and a million other things that demand their attention. What they think about far less often is how college will call of them to stretch their understanding and widen their belief systems and, for many, it comes as a shock.

We asked our communications experts what students who are prepared to expand their intellectual horizons stand to gain from their college years. Here’s what they had to say:

  1. 1. You’ll learn how to accept and express other points of view unemotionally.

    “Your peers or professors may have a different opinion or different interests, but that does not invalidate your own opinion or interests,” says Tyler Unsell. Remember that criticism of an argument does not make that argument bad or imply that you yourself are a bad person; rather, opinions can differ and that is perfectly okay.”

  2. 2. You’ll understand how communities work and thrive.

    “The classroom is a community that only benefits when all members are part of the conversation and when are views are changed and questions,” notes Dr. Elizabeth Dudash-Buskirk. Existing in an intellectually-stimulated ecosystem such as college gives students a taste of the real world.

  3. 3. Your ability to understand and respond to arguments will mature.

    “As students mature and their understanding of argumentation matures along with them, a shift takes place in how they engage,” says Unsell. “The true mark of intellectual maturity is how a person handles new viewpoints and arguments that may not directly correspond with others.”

  4. 4. You learn collaboration.

    “Once students can understand the viewpoints of others, their arguments, and their concerns, it becomes much easier to work collaboratively towards shared goals and efficiently advocate your own positions,” notes Unsell. “This type of maturity pays great dividends to students in high school, during higher education, and later when they enter the workforce.”

  5. 5. You fully take advantage of what college can offer.

    “Our values and beliefs often change as we age, mature, and yes, learn,” says Dr. Dudash-Buskirk. “Students who keep an open mind to what conversations and new views can help them learn (instead of instantly rejecting without consideration) are the most successful students.”

Tips & Techniques for Healthy Disagreements & Debates

Learning how to navigate disagreements and debates is a critical skill that will serve students well for many years, and yet it can seem like one of the most intimidating since it’s so easy for emotions to get involved. Disagreements and debates, by their very nature, are comprised of individuals sharing views that are at odds with each other and, in the best scenarios, trying to find common ground.

In both high school and college classes, it’s a favorite tool of teachers to divide students into groups and have them debate the two (or more) sides of an argument. While it may have felt a bit less intimidating in high school when surrounded by students who you knew, it can feel like the stakes are higher once you get to college. In addition to being in a new environment with new peers, classes are usually larger and topics are more nuanced. When entering a debate or finding yourself disagreeing with someone else, try to keep these tips from our experts in mind.

  1. Keep your reactions in check.

    According to a study conducted by Quantified Impressions on speeches given by executives, how those individuals gave their speeches and the tone of their voice accounted for 23 percent of listeners’ impressions of their message, as compared to the actual content counting for 11 percent. “The biggest tip I have is for students to remain calm,” says Tayler Unsell. “One cannot debate well or communicate well if they are emotional.”

  2. Do your research.

    Entering an argument without all the facts is one of the surest ways to have a disappointing and unproductive dialogue. In addition to understanding why you believe what you do, it’s also important to understand the counter-arguments of the person with whom you’re debating. “When confronted with a conflicting argument, we can learn to respectfully disagree and present counterclaims in a kind and peaceful manner,” notes Unsell. This becomes much easier when everyone participating has done their homework.

  3. Find common truths.

    In the current American climate where it can sometimes feel like facts don’t matter, students must push against this fallacy when attempting to engage in meaningful debates. “Establish shared facts,” encourages Unsell. “If we cannot agree on the rules of the game, we may not be able to play it at all.”

  4. Practice good listening.

    Focusing on your own beliefs and why you think they are right is easy to do when debating another person, but in order to actually have a fruitful debate, there must be a back-and-forth. If you’re only focusing on yourself, this becomes difficult to do in a meaningful way. Communications professor Elizabeth Dudash-Buskirk encourages students to listen just as much as they talk. “Don’t just hear, but actually listen,” she encourages. “Don’t think about what you want to say while another person is talking.”

  5. Use respectful language.

    Especially when one debater feels cornered, their instinct may be to attack the person rather than their statements. To have debates that move the conversation forward, this must be avoided at all costs – especially when trying to communicate with someone whose life experience is different from yours. “There is not room in cross-cultural dialogue for arguments or language that is intentionally offensive,” cautions Unsell. “We should try to be respectful of everyone involved in the discussion as long as their ideas do not advocate for genocide or other equally awful and evil concepts.”

  6. Be open to changing your mind.

    College is a place where students are naturally going to be confronted with ideas different from their own. While it’s fine to disagree sometimes, it’s also important to keep an open mind. “Don’t forget to consider that you can be wrong,” suggests Dr. Dudash-Buskirk.

Learn to Communicate / Tools for Healthy Communication

Learning to communicate effectively is not something that happens overnight; just as it took years to learn the rules of grammar and syntax while in school, it also takes time to develop a sophisticated style of interacting with others. College is a perfect testing ground for new ideas about communication, because everyone is there to learn. Consider the following common scenarios students might encounter where communication skills come in handy:

Group Class Projects Survival

Oh, the dreaded group project. Aside from group projects getting a bad reputation for taking up extra time or adding undue stress, they also have the potential to bring forth lots of disagreements about how things should be done. Group projects require multiple students to work together in close communication, deciding how a project will be structured and presented, who will do which work, and what angle will be taken. It’s only natural that, in the absence of good communication and organization, a disagreement takes place. The good news is that, with the right amount of open-mindedness and healthy disagreement, group projects can really help students learn interpersonal communication and how to work with those who aren’t like them.

How to Survive Group Projects

Tips for Disagreeing with Someone Effectively

From Debate to Dialog: Moving Beyond Argument Culture

In her book The Argument Culture, author Deborah Tannen hypothesizes that America argues too much, when actually they are basically agreeing. Professor Elizabeth Dudash-Buskirk clarifies this idea, suggesting that argument culture is “built on flawed assumptions about what argument is: often the word ‘argument’ is conflated with conflict, dispute, or disagreement,” she says. “Instead, we need to teach ourselves that arguments are not bad, but instead help us sort out what is best.”

It’s easy to conflate the two, as the critical thinking and analysis required to engage in a thoughtful dialog can take a lot out of you. “When argument stalls, that’s when it becomes problematic, as civility and effective communication is hard work,” says Dr. Dudash-Buskirk. “Students who realize this and know that a debate can be educational, a conversation can be argumentative, but that both can be productive, will be the most successful in managing the ever-changing contexts of communication.”

Rather than seeing arguments as a roadblock, students should shift their understanding to see that arguments in and of themselves are a good thing – provided they are conducted in a respectful, conscientious way.

The Necessity of Free Speech & Tolerance in College

Freedom of speech, a tenet of our democracy that’s enshrined in the first amendment to our nation’s constitution, provides protections and rights for individuals to speak their minds – even if their thoughts are offensive or hateful. Long seen as the marketplace of ideas, colleges play an exceptionally important role in helping students think freely and critically about what they are told. “College is seen often seen as the testing ground for new and radical ideas,” notes Unsell. “This environment helps us weed out good ideas from bad.”

Free speech on college campuses has been a tenuous concept in some circles since colleges relegated protestors of the Vietnam War to small segments of campus – known as Free-Speech Zones. The legality of these spaces has been questioned many times over the years, and many state legislatures and colleges have done away with them. The important thing to remember is that free speech can’t be consigned to a patch of grass or a parking lot. While it’s important for protestors to refrain from behaviors that aren’t condoned by the constitution (e.g. looting, violence, not getting a permit), learning cannot happen if thoughts and ideas are repressed. Students looking to learn more about this topic can review some of the resources highlighted below.

Why Healthy Disagreement is a Good Thing

Healthy disagreement is the backbone our democracy. We are a country of competing ideas and concepts. We have healthy disagreements every day, often with our family members. Families that function properly are not always in agreement but rather have systems to work through their conflict. Societies function the same way. Recognizing that two sides can have different opinions but retain similar goals will help build trust in our democratic processes and will help us heal after particularly traumatic events. Healthy dialogue and debate can help heal some of these wounds but only if we agree that both sides of the argument are worthy of our respect and time. If we see the other side as unworthy of this respect, or even worse as the enemy, then we threaten the very foundations of this country.

Tyler Unsell

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