When we did our outreach program, one of the biggest concerns we heard about was an inability to have civil discussions about polarizing topics. Whether it is with your friends, family, teachers, or people online, having heated disagreements is a common struggle among us all.
We do a lot of talking and interacting with like-minded people in our filter bubbles, echo chambers, and safe places. That’s normal! What we need to do is try to get out of our safe spaces and engage in sincere conversations about difficult topics. How can we expect to evolve as a society without being able to explore multiple perspectives?
What Civil Discourse is: A conversation intended to enhance understanding.
What Civil Discourse is not: An attempt to change someone’s mind, winning, or proving a point.
Why Civil Discourse In Person is so challenging:
We’ve all been in situations where we have been confronted by someone who challenges our worldview. Usually, our gut instinct is to have a big, immediate, emotional reaction. What we need to do is the opposite.
Why Civil Discourse on the Internet is so challenging:
The internet and social media are frequently more divisive and emotional because the discussions are not face-to-face. Anonymity and freedom from physical presence lead people to say things they usually wouldn’t. It is also difficult to see the perspective of, and connect with, someone through your phone or computer. And let’s not forget about the trolls, bots, and other bad actors that creep into our timelines to provoke an emotional response. The Global Investigative Journalism Network has a good primer on how to identify trolls and bots.
Not So Fast Civil Discourse Tips
Here are some suggestions for ways to make civil discourse with friends, family, and strangers a little easier for you.
Pick your battles
- Initiate and talk with someone who seems genuinely open and curious.
- If someone uses personal attacks, is aggressive, or thinks they have all the answers, it is okay to walk away. They may not be operating from a rational point of view.
- Accept the fact that sometimes a civil discussion isn’t possible.
A good starting point
- Agree that you’re not trying to change each other’s minds. You want to have an exchange of ideas to gain more perspective.
- Find common ground; somewhere you agree. For example- if you’re talking about vaccines, it is pretty fair to assume that no one wants kids to get sick.
During the discussion
- Listen without interrupting.
- Ask genuine, open-ended questions.
- Instead of, “you don’t really believe that do you?!” say something like, “What evidence have you seen that makes you believe that?”
- Take a beat before responding; this lets the other person know that you are considering what they said.
- Be mindful of your tone and facial expressions.
- Control your emotional response.
- Acknowledge valid points that oppose your way of thinking.
- Remember that criticism or disagreement directed towards your ideas is not a personal attack.
- Be okay with not having all the answers. It is okay to say, “I don’t know.” It does not make your opinion any less valid.
- Don’t antagonize or use loaded words.
- Only focus on the issue at hand.
- Repeat what they say in your own words. By doing this, you are showing respect and letting the other person know you’re listening and attempting to comprehend.
- Remember– there are no perfect solutions.
Know when to stop
- If you or the other party-
- Get too emotional.
- Resort to loaded language or personal attacks.
- Feel uncomfortable or unable to continue.
- If there is nothing left to say.
- Be gracious and thank them for their time.
- Take note of any good ideas the other party may have expressed.
- Look up any questions you may not have known the answers to.
- Research any points the other person may have made that you want to explore further.
- Practice makes perfect. Don’t get discouraged if a conversation doesn’t end in the best way. There will always be another opportunity for understanding.
For all the negatives that come with online discussion, there are some MASSIVE benefits.
- You have the luxury of fact-checking in real-time! This is the best way to have a productive conversation.
- You’re able to take a beat and create a civil response.
- You also have the freedom to end the conversation whenever you want, without feeling awkward.
- Many of us wish we had these luxuries while at the Thanksgiving dinner table, so embrace it!
We have 2 favorite books that tackle this topic.
“Love Your Enemies” by Arthur C. Brooks
“You’re Wrong But I’m Listening” by Sarah Holland and Beth Silvers
***Whether you’re attempting to have civil discussions online or in person, you should applaud yourself for taking steps to understand the perspectives of those around you better.***
If you would like to learn more about Civil Discourse, check out some of these great organizations:
The Conversation’s mission is particularly resonant in the U.S., where people universally sense that the country’s social fabric is strained and the common ground people share is shrinking. Information always has been essential to democracy – a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media. And with little consensus about what to believe, it only becomes harder to reach agreement with fellow citizens regarding what’s truthful.
Living Room Conversations are a conversational bridge across issues that divide and separate us. They provide an easy structure for engaging in friendly yet meaningful conversation with those with whom we may not agree. These conversations increase understanding, reveal common ground, and sometimes even allow us to discuss possible solutions. No fancy event or skilled facilitator is needed.
Crossing Party Lines is a website dedicated to rethinking/reframing the ways we interact with people who don’t share our political views.
Purple America is a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation, a character-building education and training organization that has trained more than 75,000 American teens and 2,900 educators to build a culture of kindness, caring and respect in their schools.
Civil Discourse in our everyday lives…
Share your story and let us know what the Civil Discourse means to you! Civil Discourse means something a little bit different to everyone. We look forward to reading about your experiences and feelings about Civil Discourse and will be picking our favorites to feature here!
Tell us your story!
Plane, Dennis. Practical Tips for Civil Discourse in the Era of Polarized Politics: Talking About the Racist and the Crook. Diversity and Democracy Series. Juniata Voices, Volume 17. 28 Sept. 2016. PDF file.
“Teaching Free Speech: What Students and Educators Need to Know.” 3 Steps to Civil Discourse. National Council for the Social Studies, 15 Nov. 2017, https://www.socialstudies.org/sites/default/files/3_steps_to_civil_discourse_teacher_version_1.pdf.
“Teaching Free Speech: What Students and Educators Need to Know.” Guide to Civil Discourse for Students. National Council for the Social Studies, 15 Nov. 2017, https://www.socialstudies.org/sites/default/files/guide_to_civil_discourse_student_version.pdf
“Teaching Free Speech: What Students and Educators Need to Know.” Helpful phrases to use in practicing civil discussions. National Council for the Social Studies, 15 Nov. 2017, https://www.socialstudies.org/sites/default/files/helpful_phrases_for_students_to_use_in_practicing_civil_discussions.pdf.
Crosby, Kimberly D. “AILACTE Journal 1. Fostering Civil Discourse within the Democratic Classroom .” The Journal of the Association of Independent Liberal Arts Colleges for Teacher Education , XV, 2018, pp. 1–14., files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1205082.pdf.