Some Thoughts on Civil Discourse

In my communities, and it seems in my country, I have watched increasing polarization and the lines of demarcation run sometimes very close to home. When conversations become polarized, it becomes very easy to forget that you are talking to a human being like yourself and instead imagine yourself fighting a righteous battle against an insidious, cunning, super-human villainous horde. As the climate escalates, it becomes more tempting and “justifiable” to let go of emotional containment, reflection, and dialogue with the desire to understand. Parts of us get activated by the conflict, begin to feed it and feed upon it.

A reptilian creature poking its head up from the water. Both the reptile and the water are covered in tiny green leaves.
This guy’s laying low until the argument dies down. Photo by delfi de la Rua.

As an outside observer listening to a lot of arguments (like a therapist who works with couples, or someone who reads the comment sections on the Internet), and a person who has participated in several arguments (and later wondered “Why was I so mad about that?”), I’ve noticed a few things:

  • 20% of conflict is about the thing you are discussing, and 80% is about the emotional experience of the relationship.*
  • If you are accusing another (person/group) of bad behavior, the likelihood is that (you/your group) have participated in behavior that the other (person/group) perceives as similar.**
  • When you are the person accusing the other of behavior you’re engaging in, it is very hard to stop and admit this.
  • At times both parties will make parallel arguments and accusations of each other, but each will focus on a different facet. To offer an oversimplified example: Republicans and Democrats both share Liberty as a value, because America. Democrats point toward socially liberal attitudes as pro-liberty, and accuse Republicans of being anti-liberty for socially conservative policies. Republicans focus on economic and financial liberty and point toward reduced taxes and free markets as pro-liberty, and criticize Democrats as anti-liberty for taxation and regulation.***

We need the art and discipline of civil discourse. It is worth reading and rereading about logical fallacies, as they characterize the worst habits of rhetoric. What I want to focus on is what to do when things get heated. My observation is that escalating emotional reactivity occurs when we feel misunderstood, disrespected, or dismissed.

Think about a time when you felt misunderstood, disrespected, or dismissed. How did you respond? Did you stay in the conversation? Did you stay civil and rational? Did you say something you later regretted?

Think about a conversation where you felt understood, heard, and treated with respect. What was different about the experience?

We’re social beings and we are constantly seeking to be understood. Unfortunately, at least in the United States, the dominant cultural norm is to treat other people’s emotional responses as manipulative, irritating, or a sign of weakness. (Whereas our own emotional responses are always completely correct and justified.) It is when we dismiss, ignore, or patronize other’s feelings that they tend to become more intense and reactive. We do it to ourselves, too. But when it happens in relationship, we can give ourselves the plausible deniability that the other person “lost it for no reason.”

Defensiveness is a great example. We understandably become defensive when we feel attacked, but from the outside it usually looks like we’re attacking, which makes the other participants become defensive. Defensiveness shuts down effective communication and leaves everyone feeling guarded and hurt.

This makes for bad communication. By which I mean, we actually make it harder on ourselves to be understood when we dismiss and belittle others’ feelings. Instead of listening, that person’s mental and emotional energy goes toward managing their reaction. I find this to be true even for those who seem calm and collected. They might have developed some effective skill and flexibility in coping with their reactions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have them.

But you have power to improve communication when things get heated! Even the smallest effort to show consideration and understanding goes a long way to lower the reactivity in a conversation. I’m not making this up. The Gottmans have spent years researching relationships in conflict and they have identified some simple, effective, and difficult practices to improve communications.

I want to offer some phrases to help you think of ways to try this out. When you read these, you might find these too simple, but I think we need simple, easy go-tos when we begin to get emotionally reactive:

  • “I see your point.” Or, better, try to accurately summarize their points. If they correct you, accept their correction.
  • “I can appreciate why you’d feel that way.” Here, you are not agreeing that the other person’s version of reality is completely accurate and yours is wrong. You are acknowledging that their response makes sense based on where they are coming from—their background, their beliefs, their position in the discussion.
  • “What do you mean by this?” In this moment, you have just caught yourself about to launch into a defensive counterattack and asked yourself, “Am I hearing them correctly?”
  • “I am feeling [a feeling] when you say that.” This is about sharing your subjective experience and helping them to understand the impact of their words and actions on you. It’s not about accusing the other person of making you feel that way.
  • “…” This phrase is the long pause you make when you are about to accuse someone of behaving poorly and stop to reflect on whether there has been a time in which they might have felt that you’ve acted this way toward them.

You may be so polarized that you feel reluctant to step back from the hard, accusing stance. There is vulnerability in seeking understanding, particularly if the other parties do not offer it in return. It is also true that making this effort will not always result in increased safety and respect, but I believe that a great way of finding out if someone is willing to act in good faith is to give them the opportunity to do so. If you earnestly try this and find that it is met with disrespect and hostility, then of course figure out what you need to do for self-protection.

I have seen tremendous changes occur when all parties in a dialogue commit to this kind of conversation, particularly when a neutral party supports the process by holding both sides accountable to it. I aspire to the wisdom of Sun Tzu, to whom is attributed the statement: “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” This quote speaks to me of conflicts avoided, relationships not destroyed, friendships sustained, all because of a willingness to address and resolve conflict before it escalates into war.


*Source: I made this percentage up.

**I have mixed feelings about the way I’ve phrased this bullet point as it lacks nuance with regard to conversations between people in different states of privilege and oppression. For example, some people argue that the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers are equivalent because they are nationalist groups based in racial identity. I fully disagree, as the Ku Klux Klan emerged to preserve white supremacy and the Black Panthers emerged to address the harms white supremacy does to Black people. The problem I am trying to speak to is that we get locked into defending ourselves and our groups at all costs, and unwillingness to acknowledge that the other party has ever been hurt or we have ever acted poorly interferes with finding resolution. For lack of certainty about how best to rewrite these statements, I want to emphasize that this is a perceived subjective equivalence.

**What’s interesting to think about with regard to the difference in where each group prizes Liberty is that they are also arguing about the shadow virtue of Restraint. Unfettered Liberty is not conducive to a group identity and somewhat implicitly at odds with any kind of centralized government, so Liberty must be balanced with Restraint (or, more negatively, Control). You could look at the argument as a difference in belief about where Liberty and Restraint should occur. Social conservatives say people should be free to spend their resources as they wish, but should also participate in monogamous sexual marriages and be financially responsible for their families. Social liberals say people should be free to live their lives as they wish, but should also be involved in an equitable distribution of resources so that all may be financially supported. Since Restraint is not a well-loved virtue, however, it is politically more effective to focus on where one is pro-Liberty. I think this is worth thinking about in any polarized argument. What virtues do the arguing parties share overtly and covertly, and where do they disagree about the implementation of these virtues?