Day of dialogue offers community chance to have conversations that matter

World In Conversation pilot event draws more than 600 students, faculty and staff

Penn State student Elpidio Guzmán De la Cruz facilitates a group conversation during the World in Conversation Day of Dialogue, Jan. 21, 2019. De la Cruz is pursuing degrees in planetary science and astronomy, and applied Spanish, with minors in sociology and geosciences. Credit: Michelle Bixby / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It was your usual busy, noisy Penn State Monday morning at University Park, and Thomas Building’s halls were bustling with students, teachers and staff, talking and laughing and moving from room to room. Except nobody was studying, because it was a holiday —  Martin Luther King Jr. Day — and instead of having class, everyone was having conversations.

The “Day of Dialogue,” held on Jan. 21, drew more than 600 campus community members together in an event featuring 60 facilitated dialogue groups of about 10 people each, spread over three sessions held throughout the day.

Every group conversation included two Penn State student facilitators trained by World In Conversation: the Center for Public Diplomacy, a student-driven center dedicated to building greater understanding on contentious topics through facilitated dialogue, a methodology for helping people more effectively and meaningfully communicate with each other.

The center’s students, faculty and staff, wearing matching T-shirts, spent the day guiding participants, checking schedules, solving problems on the fly, and keeping everybody watered and fed as they experienced the benefits of facilitated dialogue.

Penn State’s World in Conversation: the Center for Public Diplomacy held a “Day of Dialogue” on Jan. 21, drawing more than 600 campus community members together in Thomas Building on the University Park campus, to participate in 60 facilitated dialogue groups held throughout the day. Every group conversation – a mix of students, faculty and staff – included two Penn State student facilitators trained by World in Conversation, a student-driven center dedicated to building greater understanding on contentious topics through facilitated dialogue, a methodology for helping people more effectively and meaningfully communicate with each other. Credit: Curt Parker


Changing the conversation

“At World In Conversation, it is our goal to create constructive exchanges between people, based on the simple, humanizing experience of talking directly to each other,” said Laurie Mulvey, executive director.

“No matter what happens, humanizing one another is crucial — when we do that, the conversation changes, relationships change, the world changes,” she said. “But we also have to be able to really see the different places in which we’re standing. With these two ingredients, we can begin to think together about something in a meaningful way.”

The inspiration for the Day of Dialogue grew out of a series of World In Conversation-led discussion groups held two years ago between student leaders and University administrators, including Penn State President Eric Barron. The initial success of those discussions was encouraging, and it was thought that an expanded program might be beneficial — and possible. And so, with the support of the Office of the President and the Office of Educational Equity, World In Conversation put together an ambitious pilot event: a ‘day of dialogue’ that would involve a lot more people and a lot more discussions.

Each conversation group —  a mix of Penn State students, faculty and staff members — sat in an equalizing circle with two of the center’s student facilitators, loosely guided by a simple framework of broad questions. From there, depending on the people present, each conversation took on a life of its own — with the facilitators helping to make sure that everyone in the room would be a part of the conversation.

“A conversation is not a conversation if only one person is talking,” said facilitator Graziella Pilato, a sophomore in plant science, at the event. “When having these conversations it is so important to see people, to truly see someone else’s world, to take a moment and sit back and listen — and essential to give others the opportunity to listen, as well.”

A challenge and an opportunity

In a facilitated conversation, the facilitator helps people to talk, but does not control the conversation, which if the facilitator is successful comes about organically and naturally among the participants. No two conversations are the same.

“The facilitator’s job is to help people to talk to each other and to not get in the way of what they are trying to say,” said Mulvey. “Facilitated dialogue means that there are people present whose only role is to manage the conversation.”

Penn State student Lyra Stubbs, a psychology and women’s studies major, talks with another student facilitator at the World in Conversation Day of Dialogue, Jan. 21, 2019. Credit: Michelle Bixby / Penn StateCreative Commons


The student facilitators at the Day of Dialogue talked about their role in helping to bring about effective communication in a conversation.

Cheyenne Agrio, a sophomore in accounting, explained, “Our goal in the beginning [of the dialogue] is to build rapport and let everyone be seen in the room, especially where they come from. We’re speaking to understand, and to listen, and to hear, and really, to share — not always to convince or to change someone’s mind.”

Getting people to be comfortable sharing things about themselves is a challenge, agreed the facilitators. Jasmine Graves, a senior in science, said that sometimes people are afraid to be vulnerable, or that they will say something wrong. Or they might share strong views or emotion. That’s where the facilitator comes in.

“When someone is saying something that’s challenging to me, my favorite thing is that, really, I just want to understand it more,” said Agrio. “What made that idea of theirs come about? What stems from that, how does that make them who they are? How’s it going to be for them when they move forward?”

“Lead with curiosity,” said Graves. “That’s the main thing for a facilitator.”

“Trusting that there’s more than your own perspective is really, really challenging to do, and it takes practice,” said Jacob Ginn, a junior in food science. “What facilitated conversation allows us to do, is to talk about things that are in our hearts.”

What if conflict was not a dirty word?

“What if conflict was not a dirty word?” is the guiding question at World In Conversation. What if we could have difficult conversations and instead of backing away from conflict, we could work with it and achieve deeper understanding and collaborative solutions in the process?

World In Conversation has its roots in SOC 119 Race and Ethnic Relations, a class taught by Mulvey’s colleague and husband, Sam Richards, teaching professor in sociology. The course encourages students to question and to push the boundaries of their beliefs about issues related to race and culture. Live streamed to the world since 2013, it is today the largest course on U.S. race relations in the nation.

Professor of Sociology Sam Richards teaches Soc 119, Race and Ethnic Relations, to a packed classroom at Penn State. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons


Mulvey and Richards found that, after class, students would stand around in groups in the hallway and talk about the topics that had been addressed in class. It became clear to the two of them that the students wanted —  and needed — to talk. And they needed a setting where they could to meaningfully explore what they were thinking and feeling in class — and to do that collaboratively with their peers.

Mulvey agreed to provide basic training to a small group of students who would lead the discussion sections for the class. After about five years, they took the model beyond the SOC 119 classroom and started the project that is now World in Conversation.

Based in the College of the Liberal Arts, the center’s mission is “to initiate dialogues that expand perspectives and invite greater understanding on contentious topics,” and the vision is “to make visible the crucial role of facilitators in every sphere where people collaborate and conflict.”

Every year, the undergraduate facilitators lead more than 1,200 face-to-face dialogues with more than 8,000 of their peers at the University Park campus — 90-minute, one-time dialogues that invite personal stories, experiences and divergent views about the dialogue topic. They also lead hundreds of virtual dialogues between students around the world – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, China, Israel, Palestine, Pakistan, Egypt, Qatar, and more.

In order to accomplish this, World In Conversation teaches students the art of facilitated dialogue. Students from majors across the University go through more than 200 hours of training in their tenure at the center.

According to Mulvey, the main reason dialogue fails — especially difficult or uncomfortable dialogue — is that there isn’t a facilitator present.

“The participants in a difficult conversation can’t facilitate; they need a third party, designated as the facilitator,” explained Mulvey. “When a facilitator is present, there’s someone in the conversation who takes all sides — that’s the key. And so, at World In Conversation, we spend a lot of time preparing students for this challenging role.”

Practice makes perfect

Why is the practice of facilitated dialogue important? It’s simple, said Mulvey — in our world “there is no substitute for human beings talking to each other, for being face-to-face with someone whose perspectives are not your own.”

However, she said, people have trouble communicating effectively with each other — especially when there’s conflict; when we think or perceive people are different from ourselves; or when something really important is going on. Facilitators help make more effective communication possible.

A facilitator takes the sides of all perspectives in a conversation so that varied and divergent views are meaningfully and equitably conveyed, said Mulvey. Otherwise the conversation will be biased toward whatever voice is most dominant.

“There’s a hundred things to think about, but our goal is to start the dialogue,” said third-year student facilitator Maggie Hua, a senior in industrial engineering who also was a SOC 119 teaching assistant. “What I really love about facilitating is, the more I meet others, with other stories, the more I know about myself; and when I leave I take the stories with me, and then I see which parts put words to my own story.”

A group of Penn State students, staff and faculty sit in a circle for a facilitated discussion during World In Conversation's pilot "Day of Dialogue" on Jan. 21, 2019. Credit: Michelle Bixby / Penn StateCreative Commons


Seeing the impact at Penn State — and out in the world

Mulvey said that Penn State’s large community presents the opportunity for students to meet and talk with others different than themselves.

Her greatest satisfaction is watching students evolve and mature as they progress through the training.

“You start to see people and conflict differently when you spend so much time listening as a facilitator,” she said. “And that different way of seeing has a clear impact on facilitator as people. It’s not a process without inner struggle. But the facilitator transformation that happens is just…wow. I’m constantly amazed by it.”

The students themselves expressed appreciation for the opportunity to learn skills they can take with them into the “real” world. The principles used in facilitated conversations can just as easily apply around the dinner table as they can in a work-related situation.

“'I use these skills every day.’ That’s the most common thing that we hear from alumni," said Mulvey.

What does the future hold? Plans already are in the works for next year’s Day of Dialogue.

“World In Conversation at Penn State is really a tiny little thing on the planet. But if we can demonstrate the worth of facilitated dialogue, it would allow collaborations between people and groups that weren’t possible before," said Mulvey. "That is the vision — that somehow this catalyzes a movement, and that the world begins to realize that we need dialogue facilitators as much as we need medical doctors.”

Last Updated January 21, 2020