How to Lead the Way Toward More Civil Conversation

by Christa Hines on January 26, 2017

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” ~ Mother Theresa

I’m sure you’ve noticed—we appear to be mired in a polarized, poisonous conversational environment right now.

Somewhere along the way, many of us have forgotten how to discuss our differences in a way that’s thoughtful and amicable. Or maybe we never learned in the first place.

By sinking ourselves into echo chambers without others to challenge our views, we can be lured into the dangerous and false assumption that there is no compromise, no middle ground and no common ground.

We’ve divided ourselves between us versus them without considering the possibility that maybe the other side has a point. Maybe.

We fall under the belief that if someone doesn’t think like us then maybe we can’t like that person. (And sometimes we can’t—more on that next week.)

For those of us who desire creating a more positive, civil environment in which we can discuss opposing opinions in a healthy way, we have to begin educating ourselves and committing to being part of the solution.

Support civil debates. I’ve joined an organization called American Public Square, which was started by former U.S. Ambassador Allan Katz. The group brings experts from opposite sides of the aisle together to discuss important issues affecting our communities like social reform, education and health. A civility bell helps remind speakers to keep the dialogue respectful. Fact checkers watch for misleading information and audience members are given opportunities to question the speakers. Look for organizations like this in your community or start one yourself.

Look to role models. Watch professional debates where people don’t freak out at each other over opposing view points. Watch how they model themselves, how they present their opinions and keep the conversation civil. Watch how they conclude the conversation.

Use curiosity—then listen. When a friend says something that you disagree with, don’t get mad. Ask questions. And as hard as it may be (believe me, I know!), listen without interrupting. Be curious about why they feel the way they do. You might say, “hmm. I can’t say I agree with you there, but I’d like to understand your point of view. Why do you feel that way?” Often people just want to be heard. 

Keep learning. Expose yourself to a variety of media and news outlets. Read editorials from both sides of the aisle. In addition to relying on news sources that tend to support your views, look to credible news outlets that tend to be more moderate, accurate and balanced, and not simply using sexy headlines to attract eyeballs. Watch and listen for language that seems overly partisan in headlines and news bits. Pay attention when something is said that upsets you. Why does it upset you? Is it creating fear or anxiety? Rise above party political rhetoric and pursue verified facts.

Get involved. Be aware of what’s happening in your own community. Learn about the political leaders in your local community. Instead of assuming you’ll agree or disagree with them because of their party loyalty, be aware of how they’re actually voting on issues that you care about and that affect the community. Visit their websites. Read their policies. Read profile articles about them in your local paper. Read about the people who are affected by these policies. Realize that our elected officials work for you the constituent and you have a right to call and ask questions and politely share your opinion. Attend town halls and community events to better understand what is driving their decisions and their votes.

Find support. Surround yourself with other people who share your goal for more civil conversation, even if they don’t share your same policy views.

Next week, I’ll share tips for keeping dialogue civil, including on social media, and knowing when to walk away from conversations and toxic individuals. In the meantime, please feel free to chime in on ways you pursue more civil conversations in your life.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sara Marchessault January 26, 2017 at 6:52 pm

Thanks for this great article, Christa. I particularly like the reference to listening and trying to understand. This is important when talking to other adults and also as a parent. To let my kids say what they need to say without trying to rush them or finish their thoughts. And to let them work out problems between themselves to practice civility.

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Christa Hines January 26, 2017 at 8:32 pm

Thanks, Sara! Yes, I totally agree. Giving our kids time to express themselves is so validating for them and helps them practice sharing their opinion in a warm, receptive environment. Often what they have to say– if we give them time– is thoughtful and poignant.

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