The morning after the 2016 presidential election, four students at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University woke up feeling blindsided and suddenly acutely aware of the bubble they had been living in. The sharp divisions in our society brought to light with the campaign and election set Eva Greenthal, Kelly Kundratic, Hannah Kitchel, and Laura Barley on a path to better understand those who thought – and voted- differently from them.
The 2016 presedential election awakened many to acute divisions in our society: It’s now commonly cited that more than half the people who supported one of the two major-party candidates claimed not to know anyone voting for the other. In Virginia, for example, the Washington Post found that “fifty-four percent of voters in Trump’s camp say they have no Clinton supporters in their inner circles. And 60 percent of Clinton backers say they are not close to any Trump voters.”
“I did not personally know a single person who voted for Trump, and I really wanted to understand their motivations,” wrote Eva Greenthal. “Frustrated by the lack of ‘opinion diversity’ in my program, I knew I would have to look beyond our university to gain this insight.” Greenthal and her classmates formulated a plan to get to know other students whose views were different, and to try to learn from them and understand their views.
The students applied for funding from the Tisch Fund for Civic Engagement to pilot Let’s Talk, a joint project between the Tufts Friedman School and West Virginia University’s Davis College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The project was designed to help students of diverse political leanings “exit the echo chamber.” The group then turned to Ask Big Questions to learn how to lead positive and productive conversations.
What We Did
The goal of Let’s Talk was to provide participants the opportunity to gain new perspectives by developing relationships with students who had different life experiences and political leanings. Participants engaged in a series of facilitated inter-campus discussions on topics including bias, tolerance, and the future of the food system (an area where the two schools might have some common interest and understanding).
Ask Big Questions provided online training for the student project leaders, introducing them to the Big Questions methodology, which focuses participants on sharing personal experiences before taking positions and making arguments. The training included facilitation practices that support good conversations, such as: how to manage pacing, the importance of allowing for silence, and how to create an environment where people who disagree can talk to each other productively, even through moments of tension. The training also included methods for setting expectations for shared responsibility among conversation participants, and suggestions for how to encourage participants to apply their conversation experience to future discussions.
After the training, the Let’s Talk team used Big Questions to approach the political issues that divided the group. Using “How do we connect?,” What do we assume?,” and “For whom are we responsible?,” the student facilitators from Tufts and WVU guided three in depth, respectful conversations.
Ask Big Questions prepared the student leaders of Let’s Talk to engage peers with different life experiences in meaningful conversations across difference. Ask Big Questions conducted assessment surveys with the Let’s Talk leaders about their program. 77% reported that the use of the Ask Big Questions conversation model was successful, with 46% reporting extreme success. 71% planned to share the Ask Big Questions model with others.
Participating in Let’s Talk positively changed perceptions about people with different political affiliations. Students noted:
“It made me realize that most people can come to agreement on most things at a basic level.”
“I think, in general, it proved there is more in common between people with different life experiences.”
Participants reported significant gains in perspective-taking, cultivating connection, and expanding understanding of self and others:
“I learned that I am not as open as I thought I was to the idea that everyone has a different opinion.”
“I learned to check my assumptions. It's important to listen more closely to people and understand where they are coming from before forming opinions about them.”
“I feel like I learned some strategies for communication with others who might have different perspectives and beliefs from myself.”
“I learned a lot about my classmates here at Tufts and gained friendships with people here who I otherwise wouldn't have talked to or whom I had preconceived judgements about.”