Controversy with Civility: The Art of Disagreeing Well

Controversy with Civility: The Art of Disagreeing Well

Erin Payseur

Associate Director, Civic Learning Initiatives, Office of Community Engagement & Service, Baylor University

Ferguson. Gay marriage. Planned Parenthood. Immigration. National Debt. Living Wage. Religion. Politics. Do you cringe when these topics come up? Do these words automatically bring to mind the same old heated sound bites we’ve heard over and over? For some of us, hot topics like these create a visceral emotional response that seems to yell and scream at us, “No, don’t go there. You better not open that can of worms! That’s too heated of a topic. That’s too sensitive. No one wins in these conversations.” Sometimes, I wish I could heed those voices. Sometimes, I wish I could opt out of the conversations. I would much rather avoid the conflict and the messiness of conversations about which I know students and others will disagree. After all, who likes conflict?

No matter how much those voices in me say don’t bring it up, though, truth be told, I sense a calling to talk about these issues with my students. As a student affairs practitioner, I sense the need to guide them in making meaning of the world and to understand why these issues provoke such strong responses from all of us. I sense the need to give them courage to enter the conversation instead of run from it, to engage instead of retreating in silence. While these issues are sensitive and controversial, they are also vitally important in terms of who we want to be as a society and how we choose to live with one another in community. If we leave them to the pundits, will we solve the problems? Will we find ways forward together?

Make no mistake, engaging in this kind of work with students is often a messy process. It means being willing to have the hard conversations. It means being willing to listen and to love the other. It means celebrating moral courage and conviction, even in those with whom we may disagree. For my students, though, I want to give them skills to have these conversations – to go beyond the surface of the sound bites, to understand and respect multiple viewpoints, and to truly connect with others across difference to make our world a better place.

I have pulled the title of this series, “Controversy with Civility,” from the Social Change Model of Leadership (Higher Education Research Institute, 1996). In this model, the skill of controversy with civility is one of the group values that create the environment for social change. I want to emphasize early on that this kind of work, having these kinds of conversations, is part of leadership and an essential part of leadership – to not just bring other voices to the table, but to celebrate those voices, and to use those voices to forge new patterns and possibilities. In order to fulfill that potential, we have to frame controversy as a positive. In order for controversy to be a positive, we have to establish a culture of civility. In order to establish a culture of civility, we have to listen and value each other.

In this series, I invite you to dive in with me to think about how we can accomplish these goals. Together, we’ll look at some helpful tools and frameworks, learn to listen and love the other, and to celebrate the leadership involved in engaging in the hard conversations together.

Part 1: Embracing the Messiness – In this section, we’ll examine different tools and frameworks for working across difference with public issues, with groups, and with individuals. We’ll explore public deliberation as a tool for wrestling with policy issues and solving community problems together. We’ll explore intergroup dialogue as a framework for engaging social identity groups in ongoing conversation with each other over time. We’ll explore crucial conversation skills for interpersonal communication with other individuals in our lives. Whether we disagree with one, or with many, whether we are discussing social issues or life experiences, navigating relationships or advocating for rights, there are tools and strategies that give us the courage and the confidence to engage in the hard conversations.

Part 2: Listening & Loving the Other – In this section, we’ll explore our common humanity and cultivate an attitude of cultural humility in responding to each other. We do not have to agree with each other to respect and to love each other. We will consider research from moral psychology to understand what we all have in common. Then, we’ll get back to the basics of listening, moving from a posture of cultural competence to cultural humility. We’ll open our hearts and our minds to be vulnerable together.

Part 3: Celebrating Moral Courage & Conviction – In this section, we’ll come back to the leadership lessons of controversy with civility. We’ll look at how controversy with civility fits into the larger picture of leadership. We’ll explore how it prepares students to be leaders of moral courage and conviction who are able to work with others for positive social change.

Join me on the journey, and we’ll dive in together over the coming months. Offer your comments along the way. Share strategies that have worked on your campus. Let’s encourage each other as we learn the art of disagreeing well.

About the Author: Erin Payseur is the Associate Director of Community-Based Learning at Baylor University. She has ten years of experience in civic engagement and higher education. As part of the Office of Community Engagement & Service, she develops sustainable frameworks for co-curricular service & social justice initiatives to guide students in considering their roles as leaders and citizens. She currently serves as the institutional contact for the NASPA Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Lead Initiative. She has authored several articles and presented nationally on civic engagement, service, and leadership. In addition to her civic engagement work, she also serves as adjunct faculty for the leadership minor. She has a B.A. degree in Religion/ Philosophy from Presbyterian College and a M.Ed. in Higher Education & Student Affairs from the University of South Carolina.

Works Cited:

Higher Education Research Institute (1996). A Social Change Model of Leadership Development (Version III). Los Angeles: University of California Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute.

Additional Resources:

Sponsler, L.E. & Hartley, M. (2015). Five Things Student Affairs Professionals Can Do to Institutionalize Civic Engagement. NASPA Issue Brief -

Komives, S.R. & Wagner, W. (2009). Leadership for a Better World: Understanding the Social Change Model of Leadership Development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

American Association of Colleges & Universities, Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Initiative -

NASPA Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement –

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Erin Payseur

Associate Director, Civic Learning Initiatives, Office of Community Engagement & Service, Baylor University