Communication Currents

How to Use Civil Dialogue to Encourage Silent, Oppressed Voices to Speak Up

February 1, 2015
Instructional Communication

Ever had a silent student in a communication class who refuses to speak his or her opinion in front of others on important controversial issues? If you have ever struggled to get a nonparticipating student to join in a political discussion, you are not alone. As communication experts, we know the value of engaging the voices of all our students, especially students who may come from underprivileged or marginalized backgrounds, who may offer underrepresented perspectives from the conventional classroom norm. Oftentimes, students holding the minority perspective may feel their voices are undervalued or unwanted, and thus may resist participating in important controversial discussions.

This is the reason why I developed a civil dialogue activity to help teachers encourage their students to adapt to different perspectives with the aim of mutual understanding despite existing disagreements. Foss and Griffin explain that invitational rhetoric is about establishing mutual understanding by nurturing equality, immanent value, and self-determination. Thus, this activity focuses on encouraging civil dialogue among all students by employing the conditions of equal sharing of voices, the immanent value of each unique voice, and the willingness to allow individuals to make their own choices.

Prior to engaging in this activity, teachers should provide an overview of the role of invitational rhetoric in public communication by assigning relevant readings such as Foss and Griffin’s article, “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric.” Explaining and summarizing each of the three conditions (equality, value, and self-determination) is important to ensure each student clearly understands each condition.

To encourage students to practice voicing their opinions on controversial topics using civil dialogue, consider the following steps:

1. First, divide a classroom of 24 to 32 students into at least six different groups using approximately four students per group.

2. Second, assign one of these or similar impromptu topics to each group: women in politics, gay adoption, racial profiling, genetically modified organism (GMO) foods, music piracy, Internet privacy, and doctor-assisted suicide.

3. Third, explain the four roles for this exercise and provide four (4”x6”) flash cards with designated labels (e.g., speaker, audience-member-agree, audience-member-disagree) so that individual group members may be randomly assigned to one of the four roles.

a. Speaker Role: Provides his or her own perspective on a randomly assigned topic and poses an open-ended discussion question to the audience (e.g., “Now that you heard the position from my perspective, what are your views about my position in this issue?). The speaker will practice meeting conditions of equality, value, and self-determination as the speaker adapts to the audience members’ responses and questions.

b. Agreeable Audience Member Role: Shows agreement with the position of the speaker by sharing his or her opinions related to the issue.

c. Disagreeing Audience Member Role: Voices his or her disagreement with the speaker’s perspective using invitational language (e.g., “It seems that from my perspective, I disagree because…”).

d. Neutral Audience Member Role: Voices lack of knowledge on the given issue and may ask for further elaboration from the speaker.

4. As these roles are explained, each group should be randomly assigned four (4”x6”) flash cards with the designated roles (1) speaker, (2) agreeable audience member, (3) disagreeing audience member, and (4) neutral audience member. If the teacher desires students to lead more than one round within each small group, then ask the students to switch role cards with another person in their group to perform a different role on the same topic (or provide a new topic to perform a different role).

5. Then, each group should be given 10 to 15 minutes to respond to the provided topic on the back of the flash card based on each person’s speaking role. The group should construct at least one open-ended discussion question about the particular topic of choice to discuss the topic with all audience members with their own roles. The members must prepare to perform their roles for their classmates, and classmates should be integrated during the process in the dialogue portion when the open-ended question is asked.

6. Only the speakers within each group will be introducing the topic by stating their opinion and transitioning to leading a discussion by posing one open-ended question, and the other three audience members will remain seated but will be ready to respond to the question posed by each speaker. However, after asking the open-ended question, all classmates, including those who served in other role-playing perspectives, are encouraged to voice their thoughts.

After this activity, students will have the opportunity to return to their groups for about four minutes to share their experiences and feelings about the role they performed. Subsequently, there will be a large class discussion about their overall reactions and feelings, and about the importance of listening to multiple perspectives. Then, the instructor may lead the discussion by asking the following questions:

  • What did you learn about invitational rhetoric from your role in this activity?
  • What were your feelings during the process of participating in the role you performed?
  • What is the importance of seeking to understand a speaker’s perspective?
  • What were the challenges of fostering an invitational speaking environment?
  • How could you apply the three conditions of equality, value, and self-determination to your everyday conversations with individuals with whom you disagree?

After the group discussion, the teacher can elaborate on the importance of practicing the three conditions of equality, value, and self-determination. The instructor may also ask follow-up questions about whether these conditions were met, and why these are important to engaging in civil dialogue with classmates. 

From my experiences, this activity has been effective in engaging students who are often quiet or uncomfortable with speaking with others about political issues. This activity helps each speaker of each group: a) acknowledge all audience members’ voices without rejecting them, b) recognize that their views are valuable, and c) understand that audience members have their own decisions to make. This activity is very helpful, especially prior to a major persuasive speech assignment, to ensure students feel comfortable voicing their opinions with each other.

This activity does not vary significantly across different courses, but it has variations. For example, the instructor may provide each group with only one flash card to ensure all members in the group play just one role (e.g., speaker) or have multiple rounds per group to ensure all members perform more than one role (e.g., speaker, audience-member-agree, etc.), each with a different topic. Teaching students how to engage in civil dialogue is crucial, and this activity is a constructive step in getting them to understand the importance of incorporating their voices when discussing controversial issues with others.

About the author (s)

Leslie Ramos Salazar

California State University, Fresno

Assistant Professor