How can we have civil conversations when it seems almost any discussion of any subject can quickly degenerate into name calling, finger pointing, hurt feelings or worse? Are there — or should there be — “rules of engagement” for civil discourse?
For years many have lamented the decline in (or loss of) “norms” of civility whether in general or specifically in how we engage with each other as citizens trying to work out differences over difficult, contentious issues and solve complex problems confronting our community, our nation, our society. That lament has become more widely shared as implications and consequences of a growing incivility have become abundantly clear: hyper-partisanship, political paralysis, childish behavior by adults who should (and often do) know better, family arguments that turn to feuds and escalate into estrangement, longtime friendships ended in anger.
In what seems an incredibly short time, we’ve witness an alarming slide from a seemingly “benign” incivility into vehement vitriol, demonizing the “other,” and on down into hatred and violence.
Each of us has the power — and the responsibility — to halt this decline and begin restoring reason and respect to our conversations. But these days it’s not easy to be civil, especially when confronted by anger. Where should we start, individually?
What can we, should we do?
• Ask questions
When we engage in conversation with others, we should always make certain we really hear and understand what they are saying. Asking them to clarify what they mean, telling them what you think they said and then asking whether that is, in fact, what they meant, inquiring about the information they used to reach their conclusion, or what experiences helped shape their perspective on the issue at hand are all excellent ways to gain a clearer, more accurate understanding of another’s point of view.
We need to do the same when we’re trying to understand our own perspectives, our own thinking.
Start ‘at home’
Examining and assessing our own thinking on the judgments we make, the information we rely on, the experiences that shape our views — asking ourselves questions such as those above — helps us understand our own perspectives clearly, accurately, fairly.
Self-reflection, by taking a rigorous, honest look at our own thinking, is a great place to begin. Ironic as it may seem, developing the habit of intellectual self-reflection helps reinforce intellectual curiosity (asking questions) and intellectual empathy (the capacity to understand someone else’s thoughts, feelings, wants and needs), among other traits essential to genuine civility.
• Challenge our own assumptions
We all make assumptions … all the time; it’s part of how we, as humans, process information. Assumptions, in other words, are not inherently bad. The problems arise when our assumptions are not acknowledged, recognized as such, and subject to the same kind of examination and assessment as anything else that affects how we see things and the judgments we reach.
Identifying an assumption explicitly — stating it out loud or writing it down — is the prerequisite step to looking at it closely and asking ourselves questions about it. We can’t ask questions about the legitimacy, veracity, or accuracy of implicit assumptions. Explicitly identifying them is what enables us to challenge them, to examine what they’re based on, whether they are defensible, what would prompt us to change them or abandon them.
The process of challenging our own assumptions, let alone those someone else makes. is hard. (“If it was easy, everybody would do it.”) It requires a conscious, deliberate decision and the commitment to a thorough, honest assessment.
We can still end up deciding that the assumption is sound, but we can explain why and we can articulate the circumstances under which it may have to be modified or would no longer be valid.
Challenging our own assumptions is not only a good way to practice identifying and assessing those made by others, it’s fair because you’re not expecting someone else to do something you haven’t done or aren’t willing to do and that is essential to having genuinely civil conversations.
• Apply standards
Evaluating and assessing our thinking and that of others implies the application of a set of standards. Indeed, it’s not really possible to do so without some criteria by which to do an evaluation or make an assessment.
What are the standards we need to apply to determine
our own thinking or that of others is sound? A short list would include clarity, accuracy,
logic, relevance, breadth, and depth. Each of these is worthy of extended discussion to understand how important they are to assessing thinking, but clarity is first among equals in this regard.
Clarity is a gateway or foundational standard. If we are not clear in our own thinking, we won’t be able to express ourselves clearly and others will find it hard or impossible to understand our thinking. If someone else isn’t clear in conveying their thinking, or if we don’t understand clearly what they are thinking, we cannot accurately or fairly determine the soundness of their thinking.
The lack of clarity is a key factor in preventing us from having civil discussions, especially on complex or contentious issues.
We can take these starting points as an initial set of guidelines or “rules of engagement” for having civil conversations. None of them comes “naturally,” however, and the political, social, and cultural climate of today pose daunting challenges to their application. That means we need to practice asking questions, reflecting on our thinking, challenging our own assumptions, and applying standards.
Each of us can “start at home,” but we also need to give serious thought to moving outside our comfort zones. We each need first to be willing to push ourselves, and those who share our perspectives, to think about our thinking for the purpose of improving the quality of our thinking.
And we need to be open to, and willing to accept, opportunities to engage with those who have very different points of view.
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is generally credited with the saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Time for each of us to take that first step.
Ken Stringer is a Sequim resident.