December 5, 2019

Professor Jill DeTemple teaches students how to take topics that drive people apart and reframe the conversation around personal experiences to promote understanding. Through curious questioning and thoughtful listening, students learn they don’t have to agree with their political opposites to understand where they’re coming from. Columnist Sharon Grigsby wrote about the class published for The Dallas Morning News on October 16, 2019.


Professor Jill DeTemple, in the religious studies department of SMU’s Dedman College, has developed a discussion tool, dubbed reflective structured dialogue, that she is using in her own classrooms and sharing with professors here and across the nation.

The idea is to take topics that drive people apart — gun rights, abortion, the death penalty, the existence of God — and reframe the conversation around personal experiences. Lots of weighty research underpins the technique, but at its core is curiosity about another person’s life and values.

“Tell me a story that helps me understand how you came to hold that belief,” DeTemple repeatedly says.

She uses the model throughout her teaching, but most of it is invisible to students. The exception is the occasional dialogue circle, which former students told me they approached with dread but look back on as life-altering.

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