3 Tips for Boosting Civil Discourse and Coalition Building in Student Affairs

The need for coming together, being open-minded, and working towards compromise is needed now more than ever.

Often the world pushes us into an “us against them” divisive mindset that makes respectful discourse far more difficult. Unity and cooperation will help us more than conflict to solve the difficult problems we face on campus. By being patient, focused, and working to nurture these skills over time, you’ll be able to work towards bridging gaps between you and your colleagues, as well as between your students.

“Seek first to understand, then be understood”

Echoing the words of the great Stephen Covey, we need to listen and respect the perspectives of others before we can begin to build towards something greater. Empathy goes a long way in helping a group come together. While we might not agree with each other’s beliefs, but often we’re all coming from a good place and are hoping to do right by those we care about. Ideas exist outside of the person. Being rude, dismissive, and stubborn isn’t going to get us anywhere. We should always be open to new ideas and understandings of the world. Keeping each other honest with this as well as our students can lay the groundwork for consensus building and effective cooperation.

For example, if you’re working with a colleague who doesn’t see the point of a current program offering, hear them out and be respectful and affirming about their concerns. You can then address their feedback and give your own point of view in a calm, constructive way. Also, think about disagreements between students. Often they come from miscommunication (or lack of communication), misunderstanding, and not fully appreciating someone’s beliefs, values, and experiences. It can go a long way to have these students simply talk things out and share their perspectives in a safe space.

Building Consensus

After you’ve shared your respective points of view, you should work towards finding common ground and building a consensus. Compromise will come into play here, and it is important to incorporate everyone’s input somehow into the end product.

People feel they have more buy-in with an effort who contribute to it rather than something that is put upon them. I also like to look at this as coalition building, where people are coming together for a common cause, and you’re respecting where everyone is coming from. On a campus, this is how change gets done. Rarely is anything happening (successfully) on a large scale comes from just a single office. Getting an influential majority of campus partners and/or students will push your effort towards the tipping point.

Making Decisions and Taking Action

Now that you’ve gotten folks together and on the same page, moving towards making things happen is the final step, and is an important one. It is best to utilize partners in a way that takes advantage of their unique strengths and assets. You should also grant visibility to everyone involved and give credit where it is due for the effort everyone put in. Keep everyone updated and make sure the coalition agrees with the ongoing direction of the effort. The work you’ve done to bring everyone together can easily fall apart if people feel like you were using them for your own gain and are not keeping them involved. Trust is hard to build but easy to break, but it is so valuable when you have it.

Celebrate successes generously, and return the favor when others ask for your help. You can create a culture of collaboration on your campus and a tangible sense of everyone being on the same side. Your students will greatly benefit from communication being open, folks working together, and resources being maximized.

It can be hard sometimes to bridge the gaps between us, especially when the world makes us fearful of the “other”. We have to open our minds and our hearts to coming together and figuring things out as a team. We create many of our own problems, but we can also solve them. Our students need to know this and know how to connect and work together with people different than them. Our world and their world depends on it.

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Dustin Ramsdell

About the author: Dustin is a graduate of the Rutgers University College Student Affairs Ed.M Program. He is a proud nerd and self-affirmed "Higher Ed Geek" who is excited to connect with folks who share his love of deep conversations! Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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