July 26, 2023
In what feels like a divided, screenbound world, here’s something I think most Americans would agree on: we need to re-learn how to talk (and listen) to each other. How can we do that? One step would be to make the instruction of conversation skills a national priority.
Why? Discussion skills are democracy skills. They are workplace skills. They are relationship and wellbeing skills. And our citizens — particularly, our children and young adults — don’t have them.
Conversation is how democracy, work, school, and life happen.
Several recent studies have brought this national conversation crisis into sharp relief, both in terms of what a communication skills deficit means for individual lives and broader society.
At an individual level, conversation is how humans connect with each other — it’s how we feel seen, heard, trusted, and loved. Today’s headlines document a stunning sense of disconnectedness: increased sadness, hopelessness, alienation, and violence among youth, especially among adolescents who identify as girls and LGBTQ. Elsewhere, research on men and boys also documents increased alienation and decreasing pro-social behaviors. The Surgeon General’s two recent reports to the nation declare an “Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” (2023) and a Youth Mental Health Crisis (2021). It is well-established that positive social relationships are essential for individual wellbeing…and every relationship begins — and over time deepens — with conversation.
More broadly, our conversation crisis has manifested in eye-watering political polarity. This bitter partisanship is not new, but fresh research has documented how it interferes with learning on college campuses and ultimately, decreases young adults’ faith in the power of communicating across differences. Their jadedness — and lack of ability and willingness to use conversation as a mechanism for compromise — is a fundamental threat to our democracy.
All of these studies corroborate the daily horrors we feel as we endure too-common tragedies: deaths by suicide, mass shootings, hate-filled outbursts in pedestrian digital spaces. We wonder how many of these could have been prevented by conversation — and we know it in our bones: our society is not alright.
A citizenry in crisis is a national concern, particularly when the very generation that should be a source of hope feels hopeless. It’s time for a national solution.
Here’s what I propose as a starting point: a national campaign…