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Orchestrating Civil, Constructive Conversations

posted Aug 26, 2014, 3:03 AM by HSD Principal   [ updated Aug 28, 2014, 3:06 AM ]

In this New York Times article, author David Bornstein says that despite the diversity on college campuses, many students end up hanging out with people just like them, and many of their conversations aren’t very meaningful – there isn’t a lot of talk about the bigger and deeper issues of life. When a controversy flares up, things can get ugly – as they did in 2010 when two white Northwestern University students dressed up in blackface, put photos of themselves on Facebook, and sparked a campus-wide shouting match. Few students have the skills to handle debates with people who hold different views.

In response to the blackface incident, Rabbi Josh Feigelson and students Lexie Komisar and Allison Gross founded the Ask Big Questions initiative at Northwestern www.askbigquestions.org. It has since spread to 47 college campuses and helped facilitate thousands of conversations on hot topics, including Amherst College’s recent crisis on the mishandling of sexual assaults on the campus. 

One of the big insights from the initiative, says Bornstein, is that “facilitating a meaningful conversation takes both intention and skills – skills that are not taught in schools or acquired at the dinner table.” The project’s central insight is that when it comes to debating controversial topics, the way the initial question is posed makes a big difference. There are two kinds of questions:

A hard question – These require special knowledge to answer, so only some people feel they can speak up – for example, How can we bring peace to the Middle East? Such questions can lead to fruitful discussions only if participants already share a degree of trust and rapport. If they don’t, the discussion can degenerate: those who think they know the most will debate and protest, while others watch and feel they don’t have anything to contribute.

• A big question – These matter to everyone and everyone can answer them – for example, For whom are we responsible? What do we choose to ignore? Where do we feel at home? How does technology change us? When do you conform? When do you take a stand? “[Big questions] 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,” says Bornstein. “Big questions have the potential to tap people’s sense of curiosity and draw out wisdom from the heart... Big questions can help build the trust that’s necessary to grapple effectively with hard questions."

In addition to asking the right kinds of questions, it’s important that discussions are facilitated skillfully. Some of the key characteristics of Ask Big Questions discussions are:

  • Everyone speaks only in the first person.

  • Listen to understand, not to judge

  • Keep things confidential.

  • Avoid rushing in to fill the silence.

“The Questions We Share” by David Bornstein in The New York Times, August 7, 2014,


Extract taken from Marshall Memo 547, August 11, 2014