After-Election Dialogue: Mason Students Explore Differences

Posted: November 10, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Patricia Maulden, assistant professor of conflict resolution practice and director of the Dialogue and Difference Project

What motivated 58 students from 17 majors to gather last Thursday afternoon to talk about an election already debated for two years? Were two years of endless political debate not enough? Was it pizza? Their professors’ encouragement?

Dialogue Not Debate

The After-Election Dialogue, cosponsored by the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution Undergraduate Program, Dialogue and Difference Project, New Century College and the Mason Democracy Project, provided a different way to talk about what had just happened. The dialogue was not about debate or consensus. It was more about listening and sharing emotions.

The Dialogue and Difference Project at Mason sponsors a series of dialogues that promote structured conversations. This process fosters shifts in both emotion and perception — for example, moving from fear to understanding, extreme to balanced views, partisan attachments to shared concerns for the future.

Dialogue Process

As the dialogue began, seven student participants and one or two trained student facilitators sat around each table. Posters represented two extremes of view about the future of the United States — “Absolutely Terrified” or “Completely Confident.” Attendees were asked if they could identify with either extreme. Few raised their hands. Everyone else fell somewhere in between.

students at after election dialogue
Students at the After-Election Dialogue learned how to have a structured, nonadversarial discussion.
Photo courtesy of Patricia Maulden

General conversation began as facilitators asked broad questions building on participant views. Follow-up questions guided and focused discussion of issues and concerns. In that way, emotions and opinions were expressed in a nonadversarial manner.

Some participants had not voted and talked about their struggles with friends and family that pressured them or made them feel “like the worst person.” Other participants described the tensions between how they and their friends voted. Some felt unfairly treated as a result of these differences. Throughout the various conversations, it became clear that these tensions occur in all aspects of life both on and off the Mason campus.

Participant Experiences

“Even in the small group at my table there are so many different opinions,” one participant noted. Yet at another table they “had a lot of commonality of opinions.” A different table had contradicting views, but everyone agreed the campaign process was too long. In general, participants talked about many issues — the economy, education and health care, as well as national security and the media.

In addition, students often expressed their anxieties. “There will be generational warfare between us and older people. Right now they’re promising things they can’t deliver.” Others said the dialogue process itself gave everyone a chance to be heard without bashing in a less emotionally charged setting.

One participant recalled the posters. “I was surprised by how uncomfortable I was. Why put up the two extremes? Then I realized you wanted us to be a bit uncomfortable…open to new experiences.”

Patricia Maulden, director of the Dialogue and Difference Project, welcomes student suggestions for future dialogue topics. Contact her at

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