How To: Have A Civil Conversation

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As I was composing last week’s post about how we’re closer in purpose than it appears in our polarized time, I realized that I was also setting out (incomplete) guidelines on how to engage civilly. So it made a lot of sense to follow up with a How-To on not devolving immediately into screaming matches over politics, whether that’s online or at the family reunion this summer.

Warning: if you’re the kind of person who holds grudges, please do not start or engage in political arguments. This advice is only useful if you can…

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Good faith, good faith, good faith. We all need to trust that our fellow conversationalists are not saying things to be provocative, disturbing or just to piss each other off.

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Signs that someone doesn’t believe in what they’re saying or asking (Devil’s Advocate, contrariness for the sake of it, “just asking questions” with no evaluation or consideration given to previous answers) is a sign that either you or they should leave the conversation.  Meaningful discussion can’t be had in bad faith.

Set parameters early and clearly. This is one of my weaknesses. I’m a big picture person, often seeing how interconnected different issues are. But it’s not fair to the discussion to switch gears and move to a different (if essential) topic to make broader sense if I didn’t give some impression that this was going to be that kind of conversation.

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At some point, when a conversation becomes political, clarify what you mean to talk about and get clarity on what the other person means to discuss. Even when you disagree, it might be useful to know precisely what you’re disagreeing about.

When you get angry, say it, don’t spray it. Don’t raise your voice unnecessarily (I get super aggressive, so I am saying this to myself as much as to you). If something is upsetting you, be clear about what it was and why. Someone engaging with good intentions will want to acknowledge your anger and try to explain their position and why they didn’t intend to hurt you. If your fellow conversationalist is getting off on your pain or suffering, cut it off and decide that they’re not worth your time.

Express empathy. If someone is saying something that they firmly believe in, even if you think it’s awful, try to understand what is motivating them.

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Say things like, “I understand if you’re afraid that such and such will lead to this, but so-and-so tried something like it and the results were quite good. Many people expressed the same fear that you did, but it worked out for the best.” Don’t laugh, dismiss or mock someone’s feelings if they have kept the trust of your conversation intact. (If they’ve already breached good manners, the conversation should have ended because you walked away.)

Finally, if you feel like you’re losing control or good faith is rapidly disappearing, exit pronto. There’s nothing wrong about saying that you don’t feel that this conversation is respecting you, your position or your sense of calm, and then high-tailing it into another topic. Nor, by the by, does that qualify as “winning” or “losing”. These arguments are much bigger than our individual conversations, and if discussion has become abusive, it’s OK to walk away.

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Happy arguing!

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