Think Out Loud

Willamette University project teaches students to facilitate difficult conversations

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
Sept. 19, 2023 9:44 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Sept. 20

A sign marks the entrance to Willamette University in Salem, Ore., Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. California students used to bolster the student body at the school.

In this file photo, a sign marks the entrance to Willamette University in Salem, Ore., on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. The school's Conversation Project is a two-semester course that aims to teach students how to facilitate and engage in difficult conversations.

Rob Manning / OPB


Talking to people we disagree with can be difficult, but it’s also unavoidable. A group of students at Willamette University is learning to facilitate and engage in those conversations to foster understanding and connection. The Conversation Project is a two-semester course that aims to teach students listening, grounding and compassion skills. Students then partner with community organizations in Salem and Portland to help them engage in dialogue work.

The professors that run the Conversation Project are David Gutterman, a politics, policy, law and ethics professor and Wendy Petersen-Boring, an associate history professor. Senior Mira Karthik completed the program and now serves as its research associate. They all join us to talk more about the project and why it’s important for students to learn these facilitation skills.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Talking to people we disagree with, people with different backgrounds or experiences or political points of view, can be hard. But not talking to people doesn’t make those differences go away, and it certainly doesn’t lead to more of a sense of understanding or community. But how do you get people to sit down and talk to each other, and listen to each other in meaningful ways? That is exactly what two Willamette University professors are working on right now, and for the last couple of years. Wendy Petersen-Boring is an associate professor of history. David Gutterman is a professor of politics, policy, law, and ethics. Together, they’ve created the Conversation Project. They both join me now, along with Mira Karthik, she is a senior who completed the program and has been serving as its research associate. Welcome to all three of you.

Mira Karthik: Thank you.

Wendy Petersen-Boring: Good to be here.

David Gutterman: Nice to be here.

Miller: Mira Karthik, first. Why did you want to take part in this program?

Karthik: Something that really drew me to this program and this idea of getting to be in a space where I’m learning about conversations across difference was because I noticed a shift of energy and anger after the 2016 election. And seeing how my peers and I were feeling this anger and unable to respond in a productive way, really was a motivating factor in wanting to learn and find tools to be able to do that.

Miller: Can you give us a sense of what that meant for you in your life? So there was a ton of political tumultuousness and a lot of angry rhetoric in public. What did that mean for you personally?

Karthik: So as someone that was growing up in high school during some of the most tumultuous parts of this decade, I think that getting a chance to be able to exercise and learn about tools to be able to address these things allowed me to feel a sense of calmness amongst crazy chaos. And it also allowed me to feel grounded when there was a lot of political uprise or things happening around me that felt like it was out of my control.

Miller: Before you took part in this project, did you have conversations with people who had very different political points of view from you?

Karthik: In 2020, during the time of COVID and prior to when I came to Willamette, I was working on both City Council and State Senate campaigns in the Bay Area. And during that time, I had to interact with a lot of different constituents with a lot of different political, religious, spiritual, cultural beliefs that were different than my own. And a lot of times when I got into these conversations, I found myself unable to not only respond, but process what the person was saying if I didn’t immediately agree with them. It felt like if someone was voting a different way than I was, I was unable to even think about listening to what they had to say or to actually want to listen to their experiences or personal connections to their lives that help them or made them believe a certain way. And so I think that with the Conversation Project, taking a class that teaches you things like listening, how to ask good questions, how to embark on curiosity in a productive way, I found myself being able to want to ask questions and learn more about other people, instead of immediately shutting down when something was said that I didn’t immediately agree with.

Miller: Wendy Petersen-Boring, I want to take this to the context of the university. Do you think that the kinds of debates or conversations that you had when you were in class as an undergraduate yourself, are different from those that are happening today?

Petersen-Boring: That’s a great question. I think that the overall political context in the nation is very different. I was in school in the late 80s and early 90s, and I went to liberal arts university as an undergraduate. And the thing that I actually really loved about being a liberal arts student was the space that it provided to talk to people who were very different from myself, and to be in spaces where I could think about issues in new ways, to make the familiar strange, to explore what my peers thought. And especially in the wake of 2016, I didn’t feel the sense of fear that I would be shamed for asking a question that I see in my students. I felt like I could be curious. And I think that it’s not just students at Willamette who are working through these issues. It’s national, and reflects a polarized political landscape. But I think it also reflects the fact that we just don’t have many spaces in the public sphere where we talk to each other across divides anymore. And so people are out of practice. I think it is different than when I was in school.

Miller: And David Gutterman, the reason I asked that there’s been a lot of talk of in recent years that something has changed on college campuses in particular, that a place where once open debates happen, now those are more likely to be stifled because of a fear of call out culture or cancel culture. And more specifically, the idea is that people with conservative points of view are less likely to feel comfortable airing their views. First of all, that’s a broadly painted vision of college campus life. But I’m wondering if you think it’s accurate?

Gutterman: Actually, I don’t, in a lot of respects. There is an expectation that what we do on college campuses is engaged in nonstop debate, and that’s our goal and intention. And debate has its role in our public life. But what we’re trying to do is not engage in debate, but discussion. And the difference is that when you’re engaging in debate, you’re trying to win. And when we’re engaging in discussion, we’re trying to understand. And so the expectation that what we are supposed to be doing at a college campus is mediating debates, I think it’s a misguided notion of what liberal arts are supposed to unleash in us. Instead, it should be a search for understanding, for discovery, for nurturing curiosity. So the broad public notion and the discourse around what is wrong on college campuses, I think often misunderstands what our work really is.

Miller: I appreciate the distinction that you’re drawing there between debate and conversation or discourse. I’m wondering what it was for you personally that made you want to emphasize and teach the tools for that kind of discussion. What do you think was missing?

Gutterman: I think part of what’s missing, and what we see certainly exacerbated by COVID, is a sense of isolation and loneliness, but also a longing for connection and belonging. And so what we are doing in our work is trying to offer students the tools for social cohesion, the tools for learning how to make connection both across political differences, across experiential differences, and even to engage in conversations about difficult topics, complex topics, amongst people with which they might otherwise agree about 90% of principles or politics. And so what we are really tapping into, I think, is a hunger. Not just on college campuses, mind you. I think there’s a broader hunger in our society.

Miller: Wendy Petersen-Boring, what are your starting points here in terms of if the ultimate goal is to get people not to change each other’s minds, but to understand each other and to even just to be able to talk and listen? Where do you start?

Petersen-Boring: One of the places that we start is with the idea of teaching students how to settle their body and calm their minds. When you get in a conversation with somebody that you disagree with, especially about something you care about, you really feel it in your body. Your heart races, your palms sweat, you get shaky. And a lot of times that discomfort is enough to drive you away from wanting to stay in the conversation. We teach a whole section called “preparing the self for conversation.” And we teach contemplative studies, practices and breathing. We teach listening. We spend a lot of time storytelling and story listening. The idea is to calm the body and to teach students that and it’s actually a skill. You don’t wake up knowing how to do it. It’s a skill that has to be taught. And listening is also a skill that has to be taught. And we try to teach it in such a way that students learn to love it, they learn to embrace it, it makes them feel confident and competent, and then it becomes something they can carry with them forward.


Miller: Mira Karthik, do you remember this part of the lessons when you were a student yourself?

Karthik: Dave, I remember it so vividly, it was my absolute favorite part about the course. Especially because coming into it, not only did I not know what to expect, but I’d never thought about listening as a practiced skill. And it’s a skill that takes time and patience and effort. And I’d never been in a classroom setting where I was able to practice and exercise that skill. And so getting to be in a space that was not only dedicated to, but was allowing you to learn about how to listen and how to sit and be still and how to ground yourself in light of a difficult conversation was one of the things that I’ve taken with me in every aspect of my life, both academically and within the Willamette community, and the greater Salem community too.

Miller: Did you find it hard at first?

Karthik: Absolutely. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do, especially because so much of my high school and like early college life was just being angry. I found it really hard for me to calm my anger and quiet my anger enough to be able to try to start listening. Once I’ve been able to now be a lot better at being able to listen, it’s made my life and conversations that I’ve had with other people much more fulfilling and much better quality.

Miller: David Gutterman, how do you balance having compassion and leaving space for different opinions with what could be called a valid intolerance for hateful or harmful speech?

Gutterman: I love that question David, and many of our students are struggling with this. I think we all do. One of the first pieces of what we work through in our classes is a recognition that you never need to be involved in a conversation that compromises your humanity. You never need to be involved in a process that feels dehumanizing. In fact, what we’re trying to do with a lot of the work we do on settling the body is being able to marshal and control autonomously your full self, rather than giving it over to someone whose positions or ideas you find demeaning, diminishing. We talked about conversation and connection, [that] does not mean that there’s an expectation that you need to open yourself up in all of your rawness to people who want to dehumanize you.

And at the same time, what we’re trying to do is to ask people to engage in conversations in which they’re seeking to understand how someone has come to a position they have that might be different from them, how someone’s experiences have led them to a particular understanding, that we can then try to build a bridge towards without necessarily compromising ourselves.

Miller: But that seems really hard. Another way to put the question is where is the balance for you between maybe necessary discomfort or further traumatization? Especially if we’re talking about participants who come from different kinds of marginalized identities or have different marginalized identities, who already may have very real concerns about just their everyday safety. On some level, this seems just binary.

Gutterman: I think what we’re trying to do is to work against that binary. And part of it is to be able to acknowledge that trauma and to acknowledge the fear and to begin in all of our curriculum to really address the inequity in the distribution of power in our society.

And at the same time, what we’re trying to do is distinguish between discomfort and trauma.

Miller: What exactly do you mean by that?

Petersen-Boring: We try to have students reflect on what feels uncomfortable versus what brings harm. And perhaps a good analogy is just with the body. My yoga teacher says we’d like this mode to feel like you’re pushing yourself at your edge, but it shouldn’t cause pain. And so we do that. We have people pay attention to that. We have students journal about it. We talk about it as a group and as a community in order to be able to pick our way through what you’ve identified is a tricky gray area. But it feels like we need to be dancing right at that edge.

Miller: Is part of the challenge here a generational shift that’s different from when the two of you were in college, and when I was, when I think young people were less likely to even use the word trauma, and certainly used it in different ways? I guess what I’m wondering is if from the professor’s perspective, you need to gently sometimes tell students it’s okay to experience this discomfort, but that’s actually not trauma? Or is that not something you can tell somebody?

Gutterman: I don’t think it’s something that we tell anybody. I think what we do is try to create conditions in which people discover that for themselves. And we try to create conditions in which the students are part of a broader community of support, and that we practice this work together and sustain one another in this difficult work, in addressing exactly that dance on the edge that Wendy has been naming.

Miller: Mira Karthik, you mentioned that one of the biggest differences in your life is listening differently. I’m curious where you have experienced that? That was one of the more challenging things in the class, but how has it changed the way you’ve gone through the world since then?

Karthik: Absolutely. One of the other hats that I wear on campus is I serve as student body president for the associated students of Willamette University. And so coming into this role, I think listening has proved as the number one most important skill that I’ve needed to not only continue to work on, but embody as I navigate this role and interact with our community. Being able to be a good listener has allowed me to understand our student body and what their needs are, truly and deeply. And I think that is not something that I would have been equipped to do a few years ago. Just in our small community, we are a community filled with different opinions, different identities, different voices, different experiences. And I think being able to listen really allows me to be equitable about how I am able to support the community and support our student body.

Additionally, being a politics student and starting to think about post-grad and what I wanna do, I know I want to work with communities and local and state government. And I think that being able to listen is a foundational skill for any sort of political job or career that’s interacting with people. A public facing career needs and requires listening in order for action to be sustainable and long lasting.

Miller: Wendy Petersen-Boring, do the demographics of the students who have chosen to take this two semester program reflect the broader diversity of the community?

Petersen-Boring: It does. We’ve been thrilled with that. Willamette as a whole has about 25% are Students of Color, and somewhere around 30% are Pell eligible or first generation, which for a small liberal arts school in the Pacific Northwest is fairly diverse economically and socially and racially. And our course mirrors the diversity in our community.

Miller: David Gutterman, what are your biggest hopes for the ripples that will be generated from this? I get a sense you have your sights on something bigger than transformation within the campus alone. What do you hope to accomplish?

Gutterman: I think our aspirations are pretty large. One thing we should say at the outset is that one of the guiding principles of Willamette is that we want to help students turn knowledge into action. And so we expect them to take what they’re doing and learning in all aspects of their education here out into the world. As a result, part of what we do with this project is help students partner with local organizations who are community-based and are engaging in this work themselves, trying to cultivate difficult conversations about renaming monuments and memorials, about how to address questions and divides amongst people who are disabled and people who are not disabled, and do we think about questions of disability? How do we think about questions of transformative justice? So our students who have been working with us, partner with a series of community based organizations and learn alongside those organizations how to practice and engage in this type of conversational work.

Miller: David Gutterman, Wendy Petersen-Boring and Mira Karthik, thanks so much.

David Gutterman is a professor of politics, policy law and ethics at Willamette University. Wendy Petersen-Boring is an associate professor of history at Willamette. Together, they created the two-semester program called the Conversation Project aimed at giving students the skills to facilitate and take part in difficult conversations. Mira Karthik is a research associate for the project and a senior at Willamette University.

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