November 18th, 2011
08:01 AM ET

Tough talks across differences

By Janet Penn, Special to CNN

Courtesy Janet Penn and Patrick JonesEditor’s Note: Janet Penn is the founder and director of Youth LEAD (Youth Leaders Engaging Across Differences), formerly Interfaith Action. She works with civic and interfaith groups across the country to give teens the skills they need to communicate respectfully, then trains teens to facilitate these conversations and organize to address challenges facing their communities. Janet holds a MBA and MSW in community planning from Boston College and a BA from Oberlin College.

Two students are arguing about the recent Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. in your class. “The Palestinians are shelling innocent Israelis.” “The Israelis are illegal occupiers.” Tempers flare and a wider argument ensues. You’ve got a lesson to get through and find yourself saying, “Let’s not talk about this now. It’s just too hot to handle.” Or how about this scenario: Your daughter (in this case, my daughter) turns 18 and comes home with a tattoo on her ankle. You’ve never told her that she could get a tattoo. She knows you’re adamantly against tattoos. You’re angry that she went against your wishes, and frustrated that there’s nothing you can do.

It happens all the time. Our kids don’t always do what we say. Our students don’t always listen to different points of view. How could these scenarios have ended differently? Well, the process is simple, but it’s not easy.

Here’s the simple part:

• Ask a question. A real question, one that helps you understand the other person’s point of view. At Youth LEAD, we call them clarifying questions. What are your hopes and fears about? The war in Iraq? Abortion? The death penalty? For almost any topic, this question is guaranteed to start a different kind of conversation.
• Listen to the answer. I may not agree with your ideas. In fact, if it’s a hot button topic, I probably won’t agree. That’s not the point. The point is to learn something new.
• Set ground rules. So, you’re willing to try to really understand a different point of view. It helps to have guidelines when your view is challenged. Like, I will speak for myself. (How different is it to hear “you made me feel uncomfortable” versus “I’m not comfortable”?). Or, I will not interrupt (even though I think you’re nuts and want to convince you that my point of view is right).

Here’s the not-so-easy part:

• Consider your gray areas. We’re pressed for time. Overworked. And it takes time to listen to people who have different beliefs. But it also takes time to sit back and ask yourself, What do I believe? Have I ever felt a value I hold dear actually conflict with another value that’s important to me? Self-reflection is a critical first step in having tough talks with others.
• Understand intent versus impact. Is your student being intentionally hurtful to another student, or does he just not get how inflammatory his words are? It’s easy to lash out with a knee-jerk response. It’s definitely harder to take a deep breath, assess the person’s intent and the impact they hope to have, and then ask one of those clarifying questions.

OK, so back to the initial question: How could the scenes with your students or daughter have ended differently? Instead of shutting down the conversation in the classroom, you could get everyone to agree on a list of ground rules. Ask the students to share their thoughts about Israel and Palestine. But instead of the usual arguments - illegal occupation versus living under threat of rocket attacks - use clarifying questions such as: What’s your connection to the conflict in the Middle East?”What stories did you hear growing up that inform your point of view?

Will people change their minds? Probably not. But, they just may see a little piece of a human being behind a position. I will never forget the time Talia, a Jewish student, came running up to me and said excitedly, “I had a conversation with a Muslim about the Middle East, and we didn’t yell at each other.” Did they solve the conflict in the Middle East? No. But did they lay the groundwork for understanding another point of view? Absolutely. And this different kind of conversation will make it easier for them to collaborate on their next school project.

Peace is not always good, and conflict is not always bad. Don’t confuse a lack of engagement with peace.

The second scenario is different. Your daughter already has the tattoo, so what’s the point of talking? Here’s the point. Instead of yelling about how ugly or unsafe the tattoo might be, or that it’s against your religion, you can share your perspective and ask clarifying questions: “You know I’m against tattoos because of my religious beliefs, but I’d like to understand your decision. What do you like about tattoos? Why did you choose this design?”

Then sit back and listen to the answers. Your daughter tells you what she thinks and feels. You ask a few more questions. She feels supported by you (even though she knows you’re really upset about the tattoo). The next time she’s confronted with a choice, she may just come to you and ask a few questions. She trusts that you’ll listen to her. You get to share your values and perspective. Will she always do what you want? No. But she’s of legal age and is not always going to choose your way. (The concepts still work if a child is underage, though the conversation is completely different. But that’s another blog.)

What’s the impact of learning these skills? Youth LEADers fill out a lengthy survey each year while in the program and are interviewed while in college and the workforce. Over the past three years, we’re finding that Youth LEADers understand that there’s a variety of beliefs and practices within any group. The longer they’re in the program, the less likely they are to make sweeping generalizations about people. This is key to decreasing prejudice and stereotypes.

The great divide that separates us is not our differences, but how we communicate about them. The way we communicate can divide us even more, and in the end we still won’t know what the other person’s opinion is.

Whether it’s your student or your child, each of us interacts on a daily basis with people who hold very different points of view. And the more culturally diverse our society becomes, the more we’ll bump up against people with different cultural norms, experiences and expectations. The ability to talk and listen respectfully across differences isn’t just a skill that’s nice to have, it’s a must-have skill.

It’s simple and easy with these actions.

Filed under: After High School • At Home • High school • Resources • Voices
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Casey

    Wait, wait, there are parents out there in the 21st-century who are concerned about their 18-year old daughter having a tattoo on their ankle? That tattoos are unsafe? Wow, kinda living in the past here. Wake up call: America is a heavily tattooed nation, perhaps a tattooed MAJORITY nation in another decade. And unsafe? seriously? tattooing is safer then many of the most mundane activities that Americans engage in on a daily basis, especially at the uber-clean commercial style "Tattoos'R'Us'" style parlours an 18-year old is likely to go to. The quaint ideas here are more suited to a 1980's article not one in 2011 where a child is more likely to grow up with tattooed parents then those who object to tattoos.

    November 18, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  2. Kevin

    Yes Rick, her Mom should kick her out on the street, or better yet dig into the tattoo with a razor to make sure it comes off, hell maybe take a limb off... better show that kid you have some balls, or you could learn how to be a parent not a warden. Tough choice, I know, dont think too hard.

    November 18, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • Rick

      I'm guessing you don't have kids!
      No, I'm not advocating violence and for you to suggest that I would speaks volumes. Let me ask you this, where would you draw the line with a child (18 yo child?) living with you. She can just do whatever, whenever because she has rights? Yes, she has the right to go live somewhere else if she does not want to play by her Mother's rules. I was more surprised at Ms. Penn's about nothing that could be done. There are a lot of things that could be done in a manner that lets the 18 yo know she has to live within certain guidelines. If I was correct in my assumption that you don't have kids, I hope it stays that way because we already have enough self centered individuals who feel they are not accountable to anyone for anything. Most have been living in city parks for the past few months

      November 18, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  3. Rick

    "She knows you’re adamantly against tattoos. You’re angry that she went against your wishes, and frustrated that there’s nothing you can do."
    If she is living in you home and you are saying that there is "nothing you can do" then YOU are part of the accountability problem. Grow a pair Mom.

    November 18, 2011 at 11:17 am |