Civility is Such a Quaint Concept

I was having a conversation with a colleague recently about the decreasing ability people apparently have to carry on civil conversation when they disagree. Do we know how to have difficult conversations? As a society, do we have a lot of opportunities to practice having these conversations?

The cynical side of me says no: just look at all the talking heads and political pundits talking over each other and cutting down each others’ points. It is good entertainment: having made more jabs than the other person, one pundit can come out the clear winner. We like clear winners in a world that is otherwise gray. More personally, look at how we tend to drift towards people who think like us, and scoff, roll our eyes, or shut down when we encounter opinions we don’t agree with. (I’m generalizing of course: not everyone is this uncomfortable with difference.)

But that’s my second point. My first point is that, when I was having this conversation with my colleague, he said something that started me thinking. He said (and I’m paraphrasing) there is nothing wrong with having these disagreements, because there is not always an answer that is acceptable to everyone. Sometimes we value compromise and everyone getting along so much that we don’t allow for the fact that people are fundamentally different, and that we should not try to conform everyone to fit one way of thinking. Of course I agree with that, but my question is this: is there any benefit to even having dialogues about these differences? Not for the purpose of changing one side’s mind, but for the purpose of really understanding how each side reached the conclusions that it has reached? And if so, how do we do it in a way that is constructive, not destructive?

Or maybe he meant that sometimes one side’s position turns out to be just wrong. In which case, let the facts speak for themselves; no reason to get upset or self-righteous over it. The problem, of course, lies in how the facts speak. The adjectives that are chosen and which statistics are provided can lead to two completely different statements of the “facts.” How any of us understand a situation is colored by what we knew about that subject already, what we want to believe about it, and how it is presented to us. It is the rare and rigorous mind that is able to distinguish the facts from the personal beliefs associated with those facts.

So given that, I think it is all the more important that we as a society learn to have dialogues expressing why our opinions are what they are in a setting where others will disagree. This is hard, I realize. It’s much easier and more comfortable to stay where we know we will hear our opinions reaffirmed. But the older we get, the more, I hope, we realize that while there are some really wacky ideas out there, most opinions with which we disagree are not complete nonsense, but rather that their holders have looked at the same set of facts through a very different, and often not entirely absurd, lens. When we start to have conversations that don’t reaffirm our beliefs, but rather challenge them, that is when we really begin to think. Many possibilities emerge, including that our mind is not changed, but we now better understand and can articulate why we believe what we believe, or that we realize we have been looking at the facts with a very tinted lens, or that we believe the same thing as the other person but express it differently.

So back to my second point. How do we actually have these difficult conversations? Even if we can be calm and speak respectfully, how do we respond when someone else is simply throwing out insults? I think there are a few key principles to follow:

1) Focus on the ideas and arguments being presented, and avoid insults which serve no purpose but to alienate or rile up the other side. I know a person whose m.o. in most debates is to push buttons by insulting and accusing. It’s entirely annoying and completely unproductive.
2) No ad hominem attacks. Insist that others avoid the same. Listen to the words, not the speaker. Just because you don’t like someone, it doesn’t mean that what they have to say is worthless.
3) Seek to understand. Check your assumptions about what a person means, and ask clarifying questions with a mind to truly understanding the source of their belief/anger/frustration.
4) Listen. If you are moderating a discussion, make sure to create space for quieter voices to speak. If there is no moderator, be deliberate about not dominating the conversation with restatements of your position, but rather encouraging other(s) to explain theirs.
5) Know thyself. If you are speaking with someone who you cannot tolerate, or if you find yourself defending a position you are not sure you want to defend, walk away. Unless you are at a point where you really can (or at least want to) achieve understanding (see #3), you are more likely to do more damage than good.
What other principles are important? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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