Menu Close

Civics Corps – Spring/Winter Program

Intergenerational Dialogue Dyad

This in-depth 1 on 1 dialogue program pairs students with conversation partners from different generations. By participating in this experience, students will develop important skills not only for their civic lives but for their professional and even personal lives as well.

By the end of the program, students will be able to:

  • explain the why and how of best practices in listening and dialogue,
  • practice intergenerational dialogue across difference,
  • practice meta-analysis of dialogues, and
  • practice non-partisan Civic Diplomacy Skills (consensus-building and de-escalation skills).

Over the course of the program, students will:

  • engage and reflect on readings,
  • practice guided listening and dialogue skills (intergenerationally and across difference), and
  • conduct a meta-analysis of these skills in practice (via audio or in writing).

Let’s get started!

Defining Key Terms

The following is a list of key terms associated with the career-focused skills you will practice in this module.

  • Adrenaline – A hormone secreted by the adrenal glands (on top of each kidney). In conditions of stress, it triggers the fight-or-flight response by causing blood vessels to contract so as to provide muscles with the oxygen they need to fight or flee. It causes the heart to beat faster, increases breathing rate and blood pressure, and leads to feelings of excitement and energy that is sometimes called the “adrenaline rush.”  
  •  Amygdala – The part of the brain that integrates emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation. It helps us process fearful and threatening stimuli.   
  • Civic Diplomacy Skills – A non-partisan form of practice that seeks to generate opportunities for common ground, consensus, and de-escalation of tensions or conflicts in civic and/or workplace environments.
  • Dialogue Dyad – A conversational pairing of relative opposites on a chosen issue(s).
  • Dialogue across Difference – An intentional conversation between two or more people with the aim of generating understanding of different points of view.
  • Epigenetics – The study of how behaviors, environment, and experience cause changes that affect gene expression. They don’t change the genes themselves, but they change how the body reads them. They can turn genes “on” or “off.” Parental trauma can leave a mark on the person’s genes, so you might inherit your great-grandmother’s holocaust trauma even if you never met her.  
  • Fight, Flight, Freeze – Different ways the body responds to perceived dangers.
  • Intergenerational Dialogue – An intentional conversation between two or more people of different ages.
  • Historic Memory Dialogue – An aspect of intergenerational dialogue that seeks to understand the lived experiences of a person’s formative years (first two decades of life) and how they may have shaped or impacted their attitudes, beliefs, and understandings today.
  • Meta-analysis –  Meta-analysis is a process that combines the data/information from multiple sources to find common results and to identify overall trends. (Adapted from:  dictionary.com)
  • Neurobiology – The study of the brain and the nervous system.  
  • Neuroplasticity –  The brain can change and adapt through growth and reorganization of its structure, functions, or connections.  This happens after injuries, and it can also come about through conscious effort.  If our instinct is to verbally attack, ridicule, or walk away from someone that we don’t feel comfortable with, we can change that trigger response if we work at it.  
  • Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) – The PNS carries information back and forth between the Central Nervous System (the brain and spinal cord) and the sensory and internal organs.  

Sympathetic Branch of PNS – The SNS arouses the body and prepares it for fight or flight. The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) has a calming effect and allows the body to “rest and digest.”

Psychology and Brain Science Primer

When our identities are threatened by differences or uncertainties, we typically regress into fight, flight, or freeze.  This is well-vetted science.

When physiologically triggered as such, it’s hard to hold a listening space for someone who sees the world differently, because their perspective doesn’t make sense to our hearts or minds.  When it begins to make sense, often our own convictions appear threatened.  The resulting tension or stress triggers hormones that activate the sympathetic nervous system, and the body prepares to fight, flee, or freeze.  This is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition.  However, we are not powerless in the face of it.

Understanding the problem is half the task. Identifying it in the body is also part of the challenge.  Your goal is to recognize and allow these feelings when they arise in our body, with a mindfulness approach that can be learned.

Understand that it’s a normal reaction to think, “That’s bad! They’re bad!” However, also realize that what you’re thinking is part of a normal physiological and cognitive reaction.

The social and behavioral sciences show us that it is a pathway that can (and must) be changed, if we want to move beyond the kinds of divisions that keep us stuck in a “doom-loop” in our relationships and communities.  In specific, the psychological sciences tell us that neuroplasticity is possible; we can change the entrenched brain pathways and open doors to meaningful dialogue (and potential problem-solving) with practice over time.

Psychoanalysts like to use bodily metaphors. Two sides, left and right, with one side dominant and leading, make us more stable. Two eyes that focus on a shared horizon give us clarity, perspective, and depth perception, and allow for forward movement. Two eyes that argue that the landscape that they’re programmed to see is the one and only reality lead to loss of focus, clumsiness, and eventual blindness.

Listening and Dialogue Skills Primer

Listening and Dialogue skills are important on-the-job and life tools.  To learn more about the basics of listening and dialogue, please engage with the following readings:

Mindset and Benefits

Insights

As we walk through life, a key skill we can cultivate is a greater capacity to imagine what it’s like to wear the shoes of another person. With this skill at hand, you’ll do better in life, in love.  Humans are more than capable of developing theories and techniques that will enable us to bridge human divides.  First, though, we imagine ways to do it, and this involves developing insights and the motivation to change the way we approach others with whom we differ.  Humanity always will have and need dualities, but two eyes that see differently and are able to focus on the same horizon work much better than two eyes that blame one another for not seeing reality in the same way.

It’s easy to fall into camps or tribes on issues and perspectives. Understanding another and finding ways to communicate effectively is much harder.  However, we can do it, and it’s arguable that we need to do it.  Saying go “talk to someone who is different from you” may seem simple, but it can be so difficult that we rarely attempt it and often without success. Then, we tend to fall into blame – usually of “other” people and sometimes ourselves.  And, unfortunately, negative talk about “others” or ourselves can creep into our thinking, e.g. believing they or we are: uneducated, naive, defensive, psychologically disturbed, or just plain bad.

Imagination

We will start our practice by imagining ourselves talking with someone of a different age who thinks and believes differently than you on a topic or issue.  For example, maybe your difference is something as simple as differences over tastes in food, clothing, types of hobbies, or perhaps the topic is more personal and profound. The topic you choose could be something simple and more personal.  However, also try to imagine what two people discussing differences such as these would be like.

  • Maybe one person is transgender and the other believes that God made two sexes.
  • Maybe one is religious and the other doesn’t believe in God. 
  • Maybe one sees racism or climate change as needing to be actively challenged, while the other does not see them as problems or that fighting them won’t help. 
  • Maybe one supports abortion rights and the other thinks it is a form of killing. 
  • Maybe one voted for Trump or Biden and the other actively dislikes either or both.
  • Maybe one believes in gun control and the other in gun rights.

Examples

When you listen to Helen talk about climate change, you’ll hear an older woman who grew up in the Jim Crow South and was once a Black Panther. She later converted to Christianity, which allowed her to shift from what she calls a “victim mentality” to an “empowerment mentality,” of accepting the world as it is rather than trying to control more than one is capable of or should be controlling. When you hear Matt, you’ll learn how his learning disability and knowledge of science and history led him to believe that if we’re capable of doing something to control chaos, we should try.  He talks of acceptance versus efforts to problem-solve.  All and all, you’ll hear different ideas presented by two interesting and thoughtful human beings. Dialogues like this open the door to new perspectives and potentially meaningful debates about differences and common ground.

Some Things to Note

  • When you do this, you’ll note that people with intellectual thinking styles tend to reference literature, history, or statistics to back up their ideas
  • Note if the person references events, trends, or aspects of life from their formative years (first two decades of life) that have shaped their attitudes, positions, understandings of the contemporary world.
  • Others assume that what they see in the world must be true, because “what else is there? 
  • Some people will appeal to emotion, well-selected facts, or lived experience to evidence their thinking. 
  • Some individuals believe that the media they consume is the best arbitor of “the truth.”
  • There will always be wide-ranging intellectual levels, cultures, experiences, and personality styles. 
  • Notice how some believe and interpret the world literally, while others do so abstractly.
  • Some people agreeably accept what they’re told; others fight or question every step of the way. 
  • Notice how the participants don’t get stuck listening to inaccurate content. 
  • Notice how they arrived at their perspectives and consider how you might arrive at yours if you were in a similar dialogue.

The Stories We Tell

Some people interpret the stories they hear literally. They hear the words; others, though, hear the music.  Pay attention to the personal stories people tell. Each of us arrives at our beliefs via the same pathway:  a combination of genetics, the way we were raised, childhood and adult experiences, thinking styles, talents, traumas, relationships, defense mechanisms, desires, and fears. Even if a person’s stories seem out in “left field,” withhold judgment and listen to them with the goal of trying to understand.

For additional videos, see: Waging Dialogue’s YouTube Channel

How to Begin

Let’s Consider How to Begin!

STEP 1:  The first thing to do when you’re engaging in dialogue across difference is to remove blame and judgment, and just listen. The only way to engage someone in a symptom-relieving process is to empathize with them in a deep way. You don’t have to agree with them to be able to empathize.  Where most people get stuck is assuming you cannot have one without the other, but you absolutely can.

  • What might happen if you try? 
  • How can you actively listen when they’re saying things that feel wrong? 

STEP 2:  Strive not to be triggered by the content of what another person is saying. The truth is even people who are clinically delusional speak kernels of truth.  However, in our modern communication climate, when people hear something that feels wrong, they instantly bristle and make rash judgments like:  “He’s crazy. She’s pathetic. He’s a narcissist. She’s uneducated or stupid. He’s power hungry or money hungry. She’s a racist. He’s sexist. She’s antisemitic.”

  • If someone labels you in those ways, how does it make you feel? 
  • Would you tend to get defensive and offensive? 
  • Would you be motivated to be open with them or to fight back?

STEP 3:  Instead of giving in to those instincts, your goal is to consider who the other person is as a fellow human being. That’s not always easy!  Listen to the person and try not to judge.  Since we’re practicing intergenerational dialogue skills, a key part of a persons world view is how it was shaped during the first two decades (formative years) of their life.  Consider their lived context and its potential role in shaping their contemporary views.  Feel free to respectfully ask questions that may help clarify the context of their lives per their views.  To do so, consider questions like these as you listen to their stories:

  • How old are they? 
  • Where and how did they grow up? 
  • How did their ideas arise from their lived experiences? 
  • In what way is what they’re saying true for them

STEP 4:  When it is your turn to speak, mentally reverse roles and offer meaningful information. Try to help the person understand where you’re coming from by telling them your story.  Try to think “meta.” In other words, think about your belief as one of many possible views on a topic, not an “absolute truth.”  This is not to say that objective truth doesn’t exist, but deciding on “the truth,” isn’t necessary.  Generating understanding is. Once both sides are open to the perspectives of the other and how they were derived, it will be much easier to generate understandings, deescalate tensions, and potentially find common ground.

Some Non-Obvious Thoughts

Before we move on to explaining how you’ll practice these skills, we need to highlight just a few more, perhaps not-so-obvious brain-science concepts.

I’m sure you’ve heard about fight, flight, and freeze. That’s what people do naturally in response to certain stimuli.  We’re built for that response as human beings. The fight or flight response is produced by the sympathetic branch of the peripheral nervous system. When a threat is detected, a region of your brain called the amygdala sends a signal to release adrenaline to help you either run away from the threat or fight it off.  That’s the neurobiology. However, let’s humanize it a bit more and explain it this way.

One night, Ashley, Greg, and Juan went out late one night to a corn field looking for crop circles … as one does. Unfortunately, Ted the Alien Monster was none too pleased to find them walking on his portrait of his grandmother (aka the Blob).  He attacks and calls for back up from the mothership!  Ted chases and knocks Ashley to the ground, so she fights him hard to survive, tearing off his toupee in the process. With Ashley brawling with Ted, Greg runs away as fast as he can and hides under the hay in Farmer Brown’s barn.  Seeing his dear friends in trouble and more Aliens beaming down, Juan freezes and gets vaporized by Ted’s angry, alien father!  All three had a hard-wired response:  fight, flight, or freeze. The moral of the story first is “don’t step on an alien’s portrait of his grandmother,” and second is that these responses are difficult to overcome, especially in the face of outraged alien monsters!

Of course, it’s unlikely that we’ll encounter any real alien monsters, or even tigers and bears in real life!  From the perspective of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, though, human beings can and will react to non-life-threatening differences from the same fight-flight-freeze, instinctual response.

Why is this?  Well, human beings have developed unique and complex identities, and we have ways to preserve and protect our sense of unique identity. Just as we have an epidermal layer of skin and an immune system to protect us from dangers in our environment, we also have “psychological skin” or a kind of “psychological immune system.”  If a person perceives what another person says as a threat to their sense of identity, their defense system will kick-in to ward it off the perceived threat.  And, physiologically, their body will react similar to an actual physical danger, e.g. heart racing, sweating palms, difficulty regulating emotion, etc….  Here are some examples.  

  • If I believe I’m going to heaven because of my belief in God, someone insisting that “there is no God” may threaten the entire structure of my psychological existence.
  • If I’m struggling to put food on the table for my family and a wealthy friend says that people who are poor are just lazy and wants social programs I rely on cut, I’m probably not going to try hard to imagine what it feels like to be them and why they’d think that way.
  • If I believe that racism is not a real issue in society, and my liberal friends insist I am a racist simply because of my skin color, I also will have a hard time taking in their perspectives.
  • Or, for a more global example, if I’m a Ukrainian under attack by Russian bombs, I am going to feel outraged, offended, and resentful, and I’m going to fight hard against the other side. 

So, we’re programmed this way, how can we think and behave differently? Slowly, very slowly…. with insight, empathic imagination, practice, learning, and a great deal of caution.  It’s best not to talk about a topic that triggers you in an intense way, at least not at first.  If you’re transgender, don’t try talking to someone who believes it’s just a social construct, not real, or not God’s will. If you had an abortion, don’t talk to someone who believes you’re a murderer.  Find a topic about which you differ, but one that isn’t so personal as to be seriously triggering. 

Our journey together will be a practice of these skills.  At the end of our time together, you will be asked to reflect on what happened, what worked, what didn’t, what challenges arose, and what you learned through dialoguing with someone across difference. Your insights will be yours, but they also will help identify patterns and develop hypotheses that may be useful for future dialogue projects.  So, let’s next look at what you’ll be specifically doing.

Civic Diplomacy Skills

Ultimately, the practices in this module will help you start the journey of developing your Civic Diplomacy Skills.  We define those as: a non-partisan form of practice that seeks to generate opportunities for common ground, consensus, and de-escalation of tensions or conflicts in civic and/or workplace environments. 

These skills are best described in this reading by the National Museum of American Diplomacy.  Read through he article noting the explanation of each of the key Skills of Diplomacy and their supporting attributes.Most of us will not be a diplomat to a foreign country, but we all are diplomats in civil society, because diplomacy centers around maintenance of peace or domestic tranquility. The work you’re doing in this module ties directly into these concepts.  When you are finished with your Intergenerational Dyad Practice, you’ll be asked to reflect on that practice and how it relates to these Skills of Diplomacy in a journal.