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Published: April 25, 2019 Author: Alaina Bartel

According to Al Letson, we live in a time where there is a lot of sound and fury that signifies nothing. Letson said he doesn’t want to add to that ambient noise, but instead, create dialogue through meaningful discussions with those around him. 

Letson visited Ohio University on April 22 to deliver his Challenging Dialogues lecture titled, “When to Talk, When to Walk, and How to Always Stand Your Truth.” 

Before the poet, playwright, journalist and radio and podcast host took to the stage in Baker University Center Theatre, OHIO President M. Duane Nellis gave a little background on the lecture series, which seeks not to solve a specific issue or persuade someone to a particular conclusion, but to show the importance of keeping lines of communication open. 

Throughout his talk, Letson gave advice to his audience on how to approach tough conversations. He explained that if people are talking about a difficult subject and it sounds like a cable news show, they’re doing it wrong. 

“A great conversation is not really about making your points, a great conversation is about listening,” he noted. “One of the things that has happened in America with social media, with cable news, with all of these different things that have happened to us in the last 20-30 years, is that Americans have lost (being able) to listen to each other; we’re just talking past each other.” 

While it’s possible to hold a respectful, civil discussion with someone you completely disagree with, Letson said some conversations will just go nowhere. Letson said you have to decide whether you want to participate in those conversations.

Letson used the example of a post he saw circulating on social media a while ago that said white people should go home to speak to their racist relatives about race.  

When he saw that, Letson thought that yes, some people do — but others just need to visit with their families and say “pass the mashed potatoes.” 

Letson pointed out he will never agree with his mother when it comes to politics, but she gave birth to him and deserves to be approached with love and not anger. 

“What I’ve done with my mother is that I’ve just found these points — if she says something I don’t agree with, that feels demeaning or offhandedly mean or nasty to anybody, then I leave,” Letson said. “I just make it really simple, like I’m not going to listen to that, I’m not going to have my children around that, we’re just going to go. I don’t argue with my mother anymore because arguing takes us absolutely nowhere.” 

A point that Letson made several times during his lecture is that no one is entitled to anyone else’s emotional labor. For example, Letson said he doesn’t have to explain the “black experience” to his white friends unless he wants to, and they should be okay with that and understand where he’s coming from. 

He went on to say that individuals need to simply decide if they want to have a hard conversation with someone. Maybe they’re not ready for it, or maybe they’re just too angry to have a constructive conversation about it. 

If someone tries to engage in a conversation with Letson, but they’re too fired up with rage, he walks away. According to him, life is too short to have a bitter argument instead of a sincere discussion. 

“We live in a nation full of people who want to talk, and sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is shut up and listen,” Letson noted. “… Engage in conversation after you’ve listened. Listening is an act of love and sometimes you’ve got to listen deep and love deep even when it’s hard.” 

About Al Letson

Letson is a poet, playwright, performer, journalist and radio and podcast host. Letson created, hosted and executive produced Public Radio Exchange’s (PRX) State of the Re:Union (SOTRU) from 2008-2014, a program that garnered critical acclaim and numerous awards, including a Peabody Award.

In 2015, SOTRU ended production and Letson joined the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX to help launch and host public radio’s first hour-long investigative journalism show, “Reveal.” The show is heard on more than 470 public radio stations and has more than 1 million downloads a month. 

Letson also created and hosts the podcast, “Errthang.” The podcast includes storytelling, radio drama, pop culture reviews and interviews. Letson takes all the things floating in his head and turns it into a mixtape of delight for listeners. 

A true renaissance man, Letson got his start on stage as a performance poet, actor and playwright. His plays and performances have been produced off-Broadway and on stages across the country. A self-described comic nerd, Letson has written for DC Comics and published two graphic novels. 

Challenging Dialogues Lecture Series

The purpose of the “Challenging Dialogues” lecture series, which was identified as a strategic priority for OHIO by President M. Duane Nellis, is to provide outlets for constructive conversations regarding contemporary issues that spark national and/or international attention. 

The lecture series, and its topics, are being spearheaded by the  Challenging Dialogues for Contemporary Issues task force, which was formed by President Nellis in April 2018. 

The ongoing speaker series is anticipated to vary in style and format based on topics and presenters; formalized lectures, panel discussions or multiple “Ted Talk-style” presentations are possible. OHIO held its first “Challenging Dialogues” lecture on Jan. 24 when Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer from the National Institute for Civil Discourse spoke on reviving civility.

Al Letson speaks about when it's right to walk away or talk through a tough conversation at his Challenging Dialogues lecture.

Photographer: Hannah RuhoffAl Letson speaks about when it's right to walk away or talk through a tough conversation at his Challenging Dialogues lecture.

OHIO students and staff take notes and listen as Al Letson delivers advice on having meaningful, constructive conversations.

Photographer: Hannah RuhoffOHIO students, faculty and staff take notes and listen as Al Letson delivers advice on having meaningful, constructive conversations.