These days, it sometimes feels like the only thing we can agree on is the fact that we are deeply divided. Listening to respond rather than to understand has become the norm, and social media has made it easy to spend our spare time in an echo chamber, confirming our own attitudes through discourse with like-minded people and vilifying those who disagree with us.

That’s why Emily Sites, an industrial and organizational psychology expert and US Air Force veteran, jumped at the chance to partner with Beyond Admitted to teach an Active Listening course.

While most people would agree that being willing to listen to views that contradict our own is a noble goal, being able to do so in the heat of the moment is challenging for everyone. Sites finds that addressing this difficulty at the outset of the course is key to mitigating the resistance students will inevitably feel when conflict arises.

In Active Listening for Little Learners, students from divergent backgrounds come together in class sessions focused on topics such as personal expression, active listening, conflict resolution, and argument construction. In the last session, teams of students will synthesize the skills they’ve gained from the previous sessions to take part in a live debate.   

Research shows that engaging in classroom debate—in which students are tasked with defending a point of view with which they may not agree, teaches the invaluable skill of perspective taking. By pushing students to argue a point of view they don’t personally endorse, they come to understand that most perspectives have at least some validity.

Sites’s educational background and multifaceted professional experience have given her a unique perspective on ways we can “learn to talk again.” She earned her master's degree in Psychology with an Industrial/Organizational focus, as well as a graduate certification in Organization Development and Operational Excellence, from Penn State. A lifelong learner, she loves to take classes on all sorts of subjects and has a special passion for areas that focus on process improvement.  

Experiences outside the classroom have had played an equal role in developing Sites’s expertise in communication and constructive dialogue. In particular, the nine years she spent as an Air Force medic taught her critical emotional coping and adaptation skills that she didn’t learn in school. 

A mother of two, Sites has seen firsthand the tremendous burden placed on K-12 teachers, particular during a period when many students are learning online at home. In addition, vast inequities in resources make at-home learning particularly challenging for low-income students. Programs such as Beyond Admitted, Sites observes, can help fill critical gaps. 

“Beyond Admitted has a team of people who came together because we’re interested in making things better,” she says. She appreciates that the courses are taught by instructors from a variety of fields, mindsets, and approaches, ensuring the kind of dialogue among perspectives that she champions.