In this year of deep political division, it’s more important than ever to commit to civil conversations at the holiday dinner table, according to Professor Todd Schenk – originator of the Civility, Frenemies and #CivilityVT Projects at Virginia Tech.   

“A frenemy is somebody that you really want to get along with -- a family member, old friend, or close colleague—but that you don’t see eye to eye with,” said Schenk. “And that’s, of course, the case with many of us these days.  We have these relationships where we just want to love each other but there’s something about the other person's opinions that we don’t agree with.”

The Frenemies Project at Virginia Tech has always focused on facilitated dialogue among those who might not agree. This year, amidst the pandemic and so much vitriol in our national discourse, the initiative has largely focused inwards on the Virginia Tech community, including with workshops on active listening and civil discourse in residence halls. That said, a recent production of a play called The Race and associated workshops involving Schenk and collaborators in the School of Performing Arts did reach wider audiences, including in neighboring Floyd and Patrick counties. That work was supported by Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT).

Over the upcoming holidays, Schenk offers these reminders, as ways to step back and find common ground. 

               • “First of all, it’s important to set some time aside for contentious conversations, if you know you want to have them. In other words, after the third glass of wine and everybody’s ribbing each other, probably not the best time to get into a really serious conversation if you want something productive to come out of it. Find some time when you can give the issues, and each other, the attention deserved."

               • “It might sound silly with a family member or close friend, but sometimes it can be valuable, and even necessary, to agree to some ground rules ahead of time. These can include things like ‘don’t interrupt’’ and ’no personal insults'.”

               • “Try to be thoughtful in your verbal and non-verbal language.  Acknowledge and understand the impact your verbal and non-verbal language can have.”

               • “Communicate respectfully and leave space for your counterpart. Try to speak clearly and concisely, and not dominate the conversation.”

               • “Really actively listen.  Ask good probing questions and genuinely want to know the answers; we can learn things that we didn’t already know or at least gain a better understanding of other perspectives." 

               • “Slow the pace down a little bit.  Being careful not to make assumptions about the other side is really important.  Be ready to be open, and sometimes that can be really hard.”

               • “Active listening does not, however, in any way mean accepting everything our counterpart says. Respectful interrogation is a critical part of learning together, and sharpening our understanding of our own perspectives and others’.”

Todd Schenk is an Assistant Professor in the Urban Affairs and Planning Program of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. He has extensive research and consulting experience working on collaborative governance and environmental policy and planning issues around the world.

To schedule an interview with Todd Schenk, contact Bill Foy by email, or by phone at (540) 998-0288.

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