Imagine that you’re among a group of college students who want to discuss the big issues of the day. What can be done to bring peace to the Middle East? How can we reduce sexual assaults on campuses? What should be done about immigration?
These questions have the potential to produce rich explorations. But they’re equally likely to devolve into shouting matches that increase anger and mistrust. Is there a way to frame conversations so that people actually listen to one another?
Watching cable TV, reading the comments on news sites, or following social media threads may not be terribly encouraging. But the answer is yes. Better conversations are possible — in fact, they can be facilitated by almost anyone who cares to learn how — but it means giving considerably more thought than we normally do to the kinds of questions we ask and the context in which we ask them.
That’s the lesson to be drawn from an initiative called Ask Big Questions, which has fostered thousands of conversations on college campuses that students say have deepened their understanding of themselves and other students and improved their ability to engage with people who have different perspectives.
Ask Big Questions was co-founded by Rabbi Josh Feigelson, along with two students, Lexie Komisar and Allison Gross, while they were at Northwestern University. Feigelson was working as a campus rabbi with the organization Hillel and was moved to start the initiative because he observed that Northwestern and other universities weren’t creating spaces that helped students come together and reflect on their learning and their lives in meaningful ways.
Too often opportunities were missed, he saw. In 2010, Feigelson recalled, two white Northwestern students dressed up in blackface and put photos of themselves on Facebook. “There was a huge uproar on campus,” he said. “University administrators called an open town meeting in the student center and had speakers talk about the history of blackface and the symbolism of it.”
Hundreds attended. Organizers asked for comments from the audience. “It was raucous and angry, people were shouting at one another,” said Feigelson. “It may have let off some steam but it probably contributed as much as it let off.”
Feigelson contrasted that event with a conversation he led with students in June 2010, shortly after a Turkish-based flotilla had attempted to run Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Israeli commandos had landed by helicopter to stop the flotilla. It was widely reported that they had killed nine unarmed protesters. (In 2011, a United Nations report concluded that the Israelis had, in fact, encountered “organized and violent resistance” but had responded with “excessive and unreasonable” force.)
After the initial news accounts, numerous Jewish students approached Feigelson because they were distressed or angered by the raid. Although the students were Jewish, there remained significant differences of opinion about the conduct of the Israeli military and strong emotions in the room. Feigelson established guidelines for the discussion: Everyone was to speak only in the first person; listen to understand, not to judge; keep things confidential; and avoid rushing in to fill the silence. The question was straightforward: “How are you feeling?”
It led to a genuine exchange, rather than a debate about what had happened and who was to blame. Students actually listened to one another. “And they were able to register their complex emotions about the situation,” said Feigelson.
A big part of the problem with public discourse, contends Feigelson, is that we often begin by asking hard questions before we have explored big questions. A “hard question,” he says, is one that requires special knowledge to answer — so only some people feel they can answer it — and it bears fruit only if the participants in the discussion already share a degree of trust or rapport.
A “big question,” by contrast, is one that matters to everyone and that everyone can answer. Big questions have the potential to tap people’s sense of curiosity and to draw out wisdom from the heart.
“If you start a student discussion with a hard question, like ‘How can we bring peace to the Middle East?,’” Feigelson says, “the two students who think they know the most are going to debate and protest, while everyone else watches and thinks they have nothing to contribute. It doesn’t build trust or capacity for solving problems. It creates an adversarial environment.”
By contrast, a big question can open a space in which each individual can contribute, speaking from experience, without feeling pressured to win a debate or demonstrate loyalty to a position. Big questions can help build the trust that’s necessary to grapple effectively with hard questions. For instance, one way to build toward a discussion of campus sexual assault is to frame a conversation around the question: “When have you been a witness?”
“When we start with a big question, we’re building empathy among the students,” says Sheila Katz, vice president for social entrepreneurship at Hillel International, who was the director of Ask Big Questions for four years. “The hope is that the students will look at the world differently, in a way that allows them to receive each person as they are, and engage in conversation, instead of just argument, debate or even violence.”
Over the past four years, Ask Big Questions, which remains an initiative of Hillel International, has taken its model to 47 college campuses and trained hundreds of fellows — students, faculty members or staff members — who have, in turn, facilitated over 2,000 conversations involving tens of thousands of students spanning religious, racial and ethnic groups, and sexual orientations.
One of its main insights is simply that facilitating a meaningful conversation takes both intention and skills — skills that are not taught in schools or acquired at the dinner table. There is, of course, no right way to structure a conversation. But some principles are elaborated in the group’s conversation guides (which have been downloaded 9,000 times). They draw on teachings from the Center for Civic Reflection and other sources.
Ask Big Questions helps students discover how to establish a foundation of trust and confidentiality in a group, invite contributions from everyone, and guide others into deeper learning by interpreting the meaning of poems, texts or images, reflecting on their lives and the implications for action.
The interpretive part of the discussion is essential, says Feigelson: “If you don’t have some sort of a text or interpretive object, the conversation can easily veer off into bad group therapy.” Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University who is a leading scholar of interpretive discussion, says that the key is to work with an object that “has enough ambiguity that you can raise questions about its meaning and pursue resolution.”
That takes listening. In an independent evaluation of Ask Big Questions, close to 80 percent of fellows reported that the experience transformed the way they listen to others. That was the experience of Rachel Adell, who served as a fellow during her junior and senior years at Virginia Tech, facilitating numerous conversations with individuals, and small and large groups.
“Listening was hard for me,” said Adell. “I have so much going on in my head all the time — and to be truly present to what another person is saying, not just waiting for my turn to speak, that was a skill that I had to hone.”
She also learned how to get a conversation going and keep it going, how to manage conflicts so they don’t lead to a break down, how to gently bring in quiet people and redirect when others dominate — and how to do it all without becoming the focal point of the conversation herself.
Despite the diversity on a college campus, many students end up hanging out with people who are just like them, said Adell. They don’t take advantage of the precious opportunity that college affords to get to know people from widely different backgrounds. “Many students don’t have very meaningful conversations with one another,” she added. “Those conversations became the richest moments I had in college: when I was living what I was learning.”
Ask Big Questions’ guides can be particularly useful on campuses in the wake of conflict. At Penn State, for instance, after the child sexual abuse scandal involving the football coach Jerry Sandusky, students initiated conversations around the question: “What will your legacy be?”
Last year, Amherst College, which has drawn harsh scrutiny for reports that the school mishandled sexual assaults on campus, reached out to Ask Big Questions to train 50 people (35 students, 10 staff members and 5 faculty members) who led conversations involving 600 students, focusing on the questions: “For whom are we responsible?” And: “What do we need to learn?”
“It was a powerful experience,” said Peter Uvin, Amherst’s provost. “As on many campuses, there is a lack of conversation about the bigger and deeper issues in life.” What impressed Uvin most was that the program got students into discussions that had completely different goals and tones. “At a place like Amherst, every student knows how to debate, critique, demolish an argument,” he said. What was “marvelous” about the methodology was the commitment students made “not to contradict each other and look for weaknesses in each other’s arguments, but to carefully listen, and if one doesn’t understand — to ask for more information.”
Uvin plans to have more such conversations on campus in the coming year — and to get students selecting the questions and taking ownership of the process.
Big questions are not just for public consumption. At a time of intense political polarization — when news sites observe Thanksgiving by offering readers talking points to win family arguments — they can help us rediscover those closest to us.
“As a result of the conversations I’ve had with my family, I’ve learned to appreciate and love the differences in opinion we have in the world,” said Katz. “For the first time, I can understand why certain family members vote a different way than I do, and I can respect that. Having a deeper understanding of the stories of my family members has helped me to get excited again to be at the dinner table.”
This column first appeared on the New York Times “Fixes” blog.