The Art of Civil Discourse
The world today is quick to judge. A lurking mob stands ready to provide a sum judgement of a person’s character and worth based on a small sample of actions or choices.
Look at responses to any social media post made by an elected official. Even the most positive statements are used to air a grievance about non-related issues.
Opinions, and the arguments they inevitably bring, are divisive and fierce. Whom you voted for in the last presidential election or where you stand on a water issue will likely earn you enemies without ever meeting them. When we argue, call names and get ugly with each other, what do we gain?
I am not advocating for a shift away from conflict and criticism. When people give me honest feedback it gives me the insight needed to change and grow. Through the processes, I become better and stronger.
My plea is for people everywhere to learn how to disagree productively and exercise civil discourse, which does not aim to tear down but to build a better, stronger future.
Civil discourse is commonly defined as “an engagement in conversation intended to enhance understanding.” The concept is simple, but the effect is game changing.
Civil discourse starts with a basic but vital assumption of respect. Each person is entitled to an opinion and has the right to share their perspective.
No matter how much you disagree with a person’s viewpoint, try not to get emotional. Two people yelling at each other does little more than embarrass other people at the table.
Instead of getting angry, get interested. Why do they feel that way? How did they come to that conclusion? Am I missing something in my knowledge of the subject?
Taking the first step to seek understanding shows an important level of patience. When you seek first to understand others, you show respect for their opinion. Don’t worry about getting your point across. Showing respect will build trust; as trust increases, the conversation becomes more robust and opportunities will arise to bring in a different perspective.
This deference to another speaker also subtly acknowledges that your opinion is not the most important. Humility, which is often missing in disagreements, can diffuse emotional responses.
Humility can also help us to overcome very natural emotions. Do you approach an argument or disagreement with any acknowledgement that you might have your mind changed? Some people who answer this question honestly find they fear being wrong or may be disloyal to someone in the process.
If you aren’t open to changing your mind, why should anyone be willing to have you change his or her mind? Civil discourse has an implied social contract that both parties will equally work toward the best resolution. Try not to let pride and stubbornness prevent you from being an honest player in the conversation.
Listening to another perspective doesn’t make you disloyal to your ideals; it will give you a deeper understanding of the issue and confidence in your position. Play devil’s advocate and try to understand the opposing point of view. Having a truly open mind will make you more likely to ask the tough questions and strive to see the whole picture.
When you reach the end of a civil discourse, you and your fellow conversers may still maintain your original opinions, but you will likely have gained each other’s respect and trust.