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.
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:
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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:
Advice: Before your first group meeting, send around an email or text that asks everyone to be present and prepared without using a condescending tone. While asking someone to put down their phone in a meeting with other peers present may come across as patronizing and lead to a disagreement, establishing these ground rules before the first meeting sets a healthy and productive tone.
Advice: It’s easy to jump into the fray, raise your voice louder and try to force a point in the midst of chaos. Rather than contributing to this unhealthy form of dialogue, take a moment to think before you speak. “Listen first, talk second” is one of the most important rules of healthy dialog, says Dr. Dudash-Buskirk. By refraining from saying the first thought in our heads, we’re able to be more composed and not jockey for attention when we have nothing meaningful to say just yet.
Advice: Getting and staying on the same page is crucial for healthy dialogue, but that can’t happen if one group member is texting, two are sending emails, and a fourth is using WhatsApp. At the start of a project, decide where to communicate and stick to it. Google Docs is great as it allows for real-time editing, chat and commenting, and Slack is also a favorite amongst students and professionals alike. As a bonus, the basic versions of both are free.
Advice: It seems the natural reaction when views are questioned is to see the person doing the questioning as an “other” rather than take on the attitude that we are all seeking truth. But taking this stance makes it far more difficult to find agreement as the dialogue instantly feels divisive. “Healthy communication does not divide people into sides or subgroups but looks for ways to tackle issues together,” says Tyler Unsell. If you feel yourself start to get defensive, instead look for ways to build empathy within the conversation while also offering compelling evidence and a clear perspective.
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.
Working with people who have different learning styles can be difficult enough on its own, so the last thing a group project needs is disorganization surrounding the work itself. Tools like Grammarly, Google Drive and WhatsApp can ensure you don’t have disagreements about process and organization that can be easily solved.
If you’re made more anxious even by the thought of being graded on something that requires the work of others rather than just yourself, it’s clear you’re passionate about turning in a great final project. If this is the case, volunteer to be the team coordinator so you can ensure work is done properly and turned in on time.
One of the biggest driving forces of stressful disagreements is when individuals feel they don’t have enough time to accomplish a goal or finish a project. Before delving into research, sit down with your group to create a well-mapped timeline with check-ins and meetings throughout to ensure no one falls behind.
Working in a group to produce a single, cohesive end product can be daunting because students often feel that they’ll have to sacrifice how they do or think about things in order to work together. Rather than taking this limiting view, however, try going in with a positive mindset about things you can learn from your team.
Instead of saying “you did something wrong,” try to craft sentences that remove blame and instead look for solutions. An example would be “I’m not sure I understand this, can you please explain it?”
Rather than feeling personally offended about how a group member is behaving, try to stay centered on making the assignment at hand as good as it can be. Don’t tell another team member they aren’t a good writer; instead, talk about how each team member needs to review their contribution to ensure it meets the professor’s high standards.
Even if on its face, a group member’s contribution seems incorrect, take time to truly listen to why they did their part the way they did. While you may still feel like it’s not be done properly at the end, you could also learn about a new piece of research that led to their contributions.
Especially when working with more than one colleague on a project, finding consensus is an easy way to avoid 1:1 disagreement and instead go with the instinct of multiple teammates. If you have an issue with the content provided by one of your teammates, bring it up in a meeting (without being accusatory) to see how the group as a whole feels about that segment.
There’s a reason that the phrase “agree to disagree” has remained popular in all walks of life for decades. Despite your best efforts to effectively communicate and, when necessary, disagree, sometimes there just isn’t common ground to be found. When this is the case, it’s best to be transparent with your professor and let them know how the final project came to be.
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.
Even if you were on the high school debate team or have read up on best practices for dialogue, developing and honing those skills in college is different. Before trying to run, learn to walk. Ask your professor to hold a mock debate, allowing them to observe how each person enters into dialogue before providing advice on how to be more equitable and focused on resolve.
Recognizing that tensions can easily be raised in these situations, students should come up with a list of rules that every participant must follow to help ensure a more constructive conversation. New Hampshire Listens provides a great example of a group agreement, while the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation also offers an explanation of common ground rules.
One of the easiest ways to sew discord in a disagreement is to use words or phrases that don’t clearly get to the point you’re making. Sometimes this takes the form of stereotyping large groups of people, while other times it’s poor word choice. Think about what you know and don’t conflate that with what you think. Kansas University offers a great resource on avoiding hasty generalizations and logical fallacies.
Even though the First Amendment allows anyone in America to speak freely (with some obvious exceptions), you have the best chance of being heard when you’re saying things that can be proven true with facts and research. Rather than relying solely on your opinion, make factual assertions that leave little room for empty debate or disagreement but instead moves the conversation closer to understanding.
Dialogue isn’t meant to be tied up in a fancy bow and not everyone is going to walk away feeling like they’re on the same page. That being said, there is much to be learned and gained from regularly engaging in these types of conversations, and it’s important to recognize those things for future communication. When a debate or dialogue comes to an end, appoint someone to synthesize the points made and the facts used for participants who want to research further or have another discussion in the future.
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.
The Atlantic provides this food for thought to students, faculty, and administrators looking to better understand the fight over college free speech.
FIRE works with campuses and individual students to ensure that colleges and universities are kept as open institutions where students, faculty, and administrators can express their views and opinions.
The University of Buffalo offers this comprehensive guide to help faculty and instructors better address issues of free speech on campus.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provides an overview of what’s at stake in the discussion around free speech, highlights current issues, and provides ways for students to get involved.
Forbes Education helps students who were suspended in high school for peacefully protesting figure out how to talk to prospective colleges about it.
Rookie Magazine provides a thoughtful and well-planned list of steps students should take if they want to peacefully protest on campus.
The University of Pennsylvania provides helpful advice and tools for students and faculty looking to understand the importance of free speech at college.
As part of the Institute for Human Studies, OIP provides a range of student resources supporting free speech on campus.
USA Today offers a range of ideas of how to stage a successful protest or rally by looking at what has and hasn’t worked previously.
The mission of Tolerance is to help ensure children and future generations have the tools needed to address prejudice, create equitable communities, and improve relations.
The ACLU provides a range of information about how students are protected when engaging in freedom of speech on school campuses.
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.