Four Attributes for Civil Discourse

Mar 1, 2018 | Civics and Community

“We live in two Americas,” opines Nicholas Kristof in a recent New York Times Op-Ed. “The one thing we all agree on: Our social fabric is torn.”

Kristof goes on to suggest, “It should be possible both to believe deeply in the rightness of one’s own cause and to hear out the other side. Civility is not a sign of weakness, but of civilization.” But when the social fabric is so frayed, how do we engage civilly?

That question was addressed by Wayne State College, which earlier this month hosted a community-wide event for those wanting to learn how they can improve the culture of dialogue in our families, communities, and country. I was invited by the talented Kim Roth Howe of CoCreative Labs to collaborate and cohost with her a conversational experience in which attendees could explore their art of civil discourse.

We offered attendees a structured interaction that exposed them to the following attributes of civil discourse:

  • Intention – What is our purpose behind this conversation? It should not be to persuade, demand or impress. Rather we need to hear the other person; to learn without judgment.
  • Welcome – Our responsibility is to create and contribute to a welcoming and accepting environment for the conversation.
  • Curiosity – Are we asking questions that move us past talking points to the deeper values and experiences? Are we discovering the grays, not the black and white? We should assume good intention on the part of others, and use inquiry to reveal their perspectives and values.
  • Emotions – We all have emotional responses, but we can reflect upon our previous experiences, and reconsider the emotional reactions of others. We should expect disagreement and accept there will be discomfort. Should the conversation get heated, however, self-awareness and a degree of forgiveness go a long way to mitigating those strains. And you can always agree in advance to take a pause should tensions arise.

We asked the 100 attendees at the end of the evening to commit to an action simply by writing it on a Post-It note and sharing it. Responses included intentions to seek people with difference, listening to understand, raising tough issues with others, and embracing the courage needed to engage in civil discourse. While too early to talk about outcomes, the town of Wayne has taken a step towards mending the broader social fabric.

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