How To Have Civil Discussions With a Critical Eye

Photo courtesy of BELatina
Photo courtesy of BELatina

It can be frustrating to talk with people when you disagree on fundamental values and beliefs. Worse still, it can be really hard to have civil discussions with those people when you have opposing perspectives — especially now, when our country (and the world) feels so polarized. 

But then again, having the right to your own opinion and your own thoughts is what makes America, America. The goal is not to have everyone agree and have everyone share the same exact perspective, but to be able to disagree in a civil manner. 

The ability to have civil discussions with an open mind and a critical eye is key if we want to move forward as a society. We want involved and engaged public leadership and function productively as a community. 

We’re not saying that civil discourse is easy. It was never a simple task, and it’s certainly become more complicated in recent years. Even back in 2016, there was a sense that there was “rising anger, hostility, and distrust,” explained Jonathan Haidt, Ph.D., a social psychologist, and professor of ethical leadership at the New York University-Stern School of Business. “If you look at what people in each party think of people in the other party, it has gotten steadily worse since the mid-1990s,” he argues. 

It has undeniably catapulted to a new degree of severity in recent years, where people don’t just disagree, but they hate, and they feel threatened by the opinions of those who disagree with them, explains Haidt, the author of the best-selling book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and founder of the nonprofit organization

Achieving civil discourse in an often-uncivil world is challenging. It can be hard to budge from our mindsets for long enough to see other perspectives, but it’s more important than ever. These expert tips will help you navigate the rocky waters of having civil discussions with an open mind and a critical eye.

Set Ground Rules

There needs to be a set of rules in place in order to have a productive conversation about a difference of opinion. Agree not to interrupt one another, to really listen, avoid side conversations, and be mindful of how your voice, facial expressions, and silence impact others. Agree to ask and answer questions and welcome each other’s curiosity and interest in what you have to say. Agree to disagree. Be conscious of your tone. Avoid repeating what has already been said. Decide together how you want to handle moments when things become really heavy and heated, and maybe even pick a safe word that you can use when the conversation is going in the wrong direction. Whatever rules you establish, you need ground rules mutually agreed upon.

Really Listen Before You Speak

We all know there are two types of listening, one where you are silent but barely paying attention and one where you are absorbing what the other party has to say. In civil discourse, you need to really listen and take it all in. You need to be open and present. “When you walk into those situations that have a lot of conflict in them, the first thing to do is to be present enough to allow the other person to speak first. You’re not giving power away; you’re actually allowing them to feel seen and understood,” suggests Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy, author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges

Pause and Think Before You Respond

When someone says something offensive, false, or perhaps accurate, but you just disagree with it, give yourself a moment before responding. Come up with a tool to provide yourself with a quick breather before answering. Maybe you take five deep breaths. Perhaps you step away for a moment of fresh air. Maybe you take a sip of water to think. Either way, it’s better to avoid responding from a place of anger. “First of all, when you respond in that moment of anger, you’re not going to respond well,” explains Cuddy. If you pause and really think before you answer, you’ll be able to ensure you say the point that you want to get across and not an emotional outburst. 

Don’t Try to Convince Anyone that You are Right

Remember that civil discourse is not about changing anyone else’s opinion and the end goal is not to get the other side to come around to your way of thinking. No one wins in civil discourse. But if you’re able to achieve the act of an open conversation with fair discussions and critical thinking, then everyone wins.

Avoid Divisive Phrases and Binary Thinking

Stay away from words and phrases that will only further divide your discussion. Keep the language constructive and factual. Avoid name-calling or judgments, and remember that it’s not about scoring rhetorical points or winning with harsh insults. It’s about sharing what you stand for and trying to hear and understand where others stand. Civil arguments are not about who’s right or wrong but about where you differ and where you are aligned. And those positions are not black and white. Everything falls on a spectrum, so binary thinking is not productive or fair. Any issue you might debate or discuss is most likely very complex and multi-layered, so trying to force each other into simple categories or sides will never work.   

Remind Yourself (and Others) Why You are There

Above all, constantly remind yourself and each other why you are there and what you are trying to achieve. Conversation. Open-minded discussion. Enlightening insights and opposing perspectives. You’re there to listen, learn, consider, and investigate with a critical eye. Don’t lose sight of the goal in the heat of the moment.

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