Talking at cross-purposes

Muddy hell

One of the most frustrating things in teaching environments is when people end up talking at cross-purposes. Often, this ends up as two people strongly disagreeing with other each, even though it looks – to an external observer – like they’re agreeing, but are coming to it from different directions.

I had a mild example of this at a recent event, where I was challenged because of the terms/language I was using. “Why do you keep on calling it ‘democracy’ when it’s not?”, was the basic thrust. I countered that the issue wasn’t the terms, but what one might do with the situation. The person suggested what one might do was… change the terms. Et cetera.


I mention this a) because it’s strangely annoying, b) because it was odd, in this case, that one of the parties was aware it was happening and c) because when it happens in a class, you need to deal with it.

This happens in all walks of life: as my significant other likes to tell me “it sounds like you’re arguing, but actually you’re agreeing”. But it’s potentially more common in a PoliSci setting, where we frequently discuss topics that have many valid alternative interpretations and levels of analysis, which are not always (often?) mutually compatible.

So what to do?

If you’re on the outside of such a misunderstanding, then it’s quite easy. You have to step in, stop the participants, and show they why they are missing each other’s point. Importantly, you need to acknowledge the value that each side might contain, but also show limitations. Typically, both sides have something to say, but not everything.

If you’re more confident about your class, then stop the debate and ask for someone else to comment on the clash of ideas. It’s usually quite obvious where the issue lies (which is why it’s so annoying) and it’s good to give students confidence to step in and learn about self-policing. Ideally, you’d like students to be stepping in to do this without prompting, but then you have to make sure that you back up their point: if they just get pushed (metaphorically) to one side, then that can undermine confidence.

More problematic is the situation where you are part of the debate.

If you see the crossed-purposes, then you can try to point out the issue to your interlocutor. However, probably more useful is to bring in other voices from the class and invite them to challenge you both. Again, it’s about acknowledging value and limitations on both sides, rather than pronouncing on a ‘winner’.

If you don’t see the crossed-purposes, then you’re a bit more stuck.  You feel like the other party isn’t getting the point, so you keep banging away, to no effect. As such, it’s just a fancy version of the “I teach, they don’t learn” complaint.

Put like that, you hopefully now see that the problem is as much about you as about them: you need to change the situation.

Here, the rest of the class is your help. If they are generally encouraged to speak up, then you might hope that this is the kind of moment that they do. Likewise, you need to keep enough self-awareness that if something’s not working, then you need to try something else. That might mean getting students to talk with each other, or to write down key points to map out an issue, or asking someone to summarise where we are. In short, be prepared to accept that something isn’t working and remember that there’s always another way to get to where you want to be.

And no, I’m not going to give any of this a label, or define my terms.

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