Dartmouth is teaching Gen Z to have difficult conversations


No one enjoys having difficult conversations—that’s why sharing ideas constructively and mindfully is so crucial. At Ivy League school Dartmouth College, that means launching a specific program geared at teaching undergrads how to have difficult conversations in the classroom and throughout their career.

“This is a skill we learn,” new Dartmouth president Sian Beilock said onstage at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif. On Wednesday.

The program, called the Dialogue Project, “seeks to prepare the Dartmouth community with the mindset and skills necessary to engage in successful dialogue, even in the face of the most emotionally or politically charged disagreements.” Mutual understanding, regardless of individual differences, is “fundamental” to learning of all kinds and to “positive civic participation and leadership,” a program description reads. 

In Beilock’s words—she discussed the project on a panel about diversity, equity, and inclusion—the idea is ensuring that Dartmouth centers voices “that haven’t always historically been centered.” Talking across differences, she added, “is not something that we’re endowed with. We have to teach it to our employees, our faculty, [and] to leaders.”

Dartmouth is getting ahead of the curve. Educating young workers and new workforce entrants on basic etiquette and norms is becoming a whole cottage industry. Major consulting firms like Deloitte, PwC, and KPMG have already taken to offering specialized training for their Gen Z workers who may be new to offices after the pandemic robbed them of in-person internship experiences. 

Other firms offer soft skills training for employees of all ages who are off to a shakier start now that in-person work has resumed. If you ask Gen Z though, most would tell you they’re more concerned about their ability to tackle hard skills, not soft skills, and are looking for jobs that are eager to help them upskill. 

But conversationality is both a critical hard and soft skill, Beilock might argue. When people at the table feel that they belong and that they can push each other without fear of backlash or ad hominem attacks, better decisions always result, Beilock said. 

Oftentimes, conversations are clouded by people’s fear that what they say will be taken as an imperative of who they are. “In psychologist terms, we call that the fundamental attribution error,” Beilock said. “Part of that is feeling like you can trust one another, [that] you have a community. Then you can say things, you can make mistakes, you can feel uncomfortable, and I think that’s so important for getting to the best outcome.”

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