Intergroup dialogue is one specific approach to intergroup communication. Throughout the entire intergroup dialogue experience, participants are presented with opportunities for engaging in “a new kind of communication…one that is aimed at understanding rather than arguing or attempting to convince each other, and one that connects dialogue to action” (Gurin-Sands et al., 2012, p. 64). Every Intergroup Dialogue Project (IDP) offering is designed to foster this kind of critical dialogue, enabling participants to explore their own and others’ experiences through listening, sharing, and posing questions about assumptions, perspectives, and broader social structures (Sorensen et al., 2009).

Through IDP, participants practice and improve their intergroup communication skills, specifically those related to active listening and productive conflict (two common outcomes of intergroup dialogue programs; Frantell et al., 2019). Indeed, after practicing dialogic communication, research has found that many participants feel more confident in their ability to engage in communication across difference and more comfortable discussing social identities (DeTurk, 2006). We find that participants in IDP’s programming report similar positive experiences when communicating across differences in perspective and identity, and when having challenging conversations or conflicts.

Communicating Across Differences in Perspective

IDP’s programs aim to create a collaborative space in which a wide range of candid perspectives can be shared, critically explored, and learned from; as described by one scholar, “dialogue promotes an interactive communication style, where ideas and perspectives are presented but students are encouraged to use active listening and to ask questions of their peers to promote increased understanding for how and why identity and socialization have shaped students’ perspectives on the world” (Sorensen et al., 2009, p. 13). On a survey following their participation in IDP’s session during Orientation, a majority of incoming students indicated that they practiced sharing their honest perspective with others during the workshop and that they left the session feeling more comfortable and more capable of communicating with someone who’s different from them. One incoming student, articulating an important thing they learned during their time with IDP, highlighted the importance of authenticity and acknowledging differences in perspective: “I learned the importance of being authentic in your own opinions rather than avoiding conflict and always simply agreeing. Dialogue can create new understandings only by first acknowledging the differences.” 

Another student described their main takeaway from the orientation session as “someone’s important social identity groups are different than mine, and I will have to actively listen and engage to know and respect these differences.” Active listening (hearing and receiving a message with understanding) was key for many incoming students, a majority of whom reported leaving the IDP session feeling better able to listen to others with the goal of understanding what they’re really saying. Listening is one of the most essential skills when communicating across difference; in intergroup dialogue, students often listen to others’ perspectives and then reciprocate by sharing their own experiences, posing questions to others in the group, and collectively reconsidering perspectives about social identities (Nagda, 2006).

Communicating in Challenging Conversations

With its emphasis on communication aimed at mutual understanding, intergroup dialogue “offers a unique opportunity to talk about social identities and current social conflicts in a way that may feel less threatening and more productive” than what participants are accustomed to (Frantell et al., 2019, p. 675). Norms about demonstrating competence and convincing others are prevalent in many classrooms and workplaces, so it is not surprising that those enrolled in IDP’s course for MBA students would experience intergroup dialogue as a novel approach to challenging conversations. As described by one MBA student: “I had always thought that most of my conversations were very effective, but after studying the handout on dialogue, debate, and discussion, I came to realize how wrong I was…I came to understand that I was just using those interactions to further my own agenda and propose my own version of truth and not challenge my preconceived notions…I would consistently let my ego get in the way of what could have been excellent learning opportunities…”

Challenging conversations can certainly be valuable learning opportunities, and intergroup dialogue courses present “students with opportunities to learn how to communicate effectively across different perspectives in order to prevent the fatal pitfalls that can characterize intergroup interactions” (Sorensen et al., 2009, p. 13). Reluctance to engage in conflict is one potential pitfall of intergroup interactions that one MBA student is hoping to avoid after the course: “I see now…how critical it will be for me not to tiptoe around difference and potential conflict, but instead to lean on the tools we have learned to openly talk about differences and conflicts so we are actually able to productively address and resolve them.” Comparing responses from surveys completed at the beginning and then again at the end of the half-semester course, there was a sizable increase in the proportion of MBA students who agreed with the statement “I feel like I have the skills necessary to engage effectively in challenging conversations,” and we are confident that they will take these skills with them into their workplaces after graduating from Cornell.

Communicating Across Differences in Identity

IDP conducts an annual training focused on helping members of Cornell’s residential staff (e.g., resident assistants (RAs), graduate resident fellows (GRFs)) practice communicating about their own and others’ social identities. Through sharing and hearing personal stories related to social identity, intergroup dialogue participants learn more about other people and other lived experiences (Nagda, 2006). A majority of residential staff participants report that at least one skill they practiced during this training will help them have more meaningful interactions with people whose identities differ from their own. Many also saw explicit connections between these conversations about identity and their work as residential staff, a point articulated by one undergraduate RA: “I learned to always keep in mind peoples’ identities so that I can better support my residents as an RA and create an inclusive environment.”

Sharing feelings and experiences, reflecting on the stories that are shared, and connecting individuals’ experiences to broader societal structures can all be powerful learning opportunities in an intergroup dialogue context (Kivlighan & Aresneau, 2009). Practicing this kind of intergroup communication in a facilitated session can help participants feel more comfortable using these skills in general; indeed, a majority of residential staff indicated that they felt more or a lot more comfortable communicating with someone who’s different from them after their experience with IDP. For example, one RA described their increased comfort using these skills in the following way: “I’ve already felt confident about my communications skills with people I know well, but I can now apply these skills with people I’m only just getting to know.” Residential staff are often tasked with providing programming to students living on campus, and for some, their increased comfort talking about identity differences also emerged in the actions they planned to take following their IDP session: one RA planned to offer “Programming that introduces residents to identities different from their own and gives them a space to share their own identities.”