Turning Violent Disagreements into Civil Discourse

When it comes to politics, my brother-in-law Loren and I are on totally different planets. On his annual visits to our home, I count on our high-spirited debates. The surprising thing about our discourse is that it’s actually … civil. Could your family say the same?

Loren has taught me a lot about discussing sensitive topics. He listens intently to my perspective. When my message isn’t sinking in, he says, “Okay, help me understand what you see that I don’t see.”

He takes the role of learner instead of teacher. This involves probing for answers and holding space for my thoughts. The effects are powerful. I find myself more willing to consider what he has to say, too.

This kind of healthy disagreement is rare. For the sake of humanity, we need to learn to get along with people who hold different beliefs from us. Agree or disagree, here are four major steps to staying civil on sensitive subjects.

Guideline 1: Begin where you agree.

About 15 years ago, I attended a conference of 50 attendees from 30 different countries and 4 major religions. It would have been easy to focus on our differences, but the conference organizer built the first exercise to help us find our commonalities. When we knew how we were the same, we could more easily tolerate our differences.

As leaders, we must look for overlapping interests. Even with people with whom we might violently disagree. This is the foundation of a civil conversation.

Guideline 2: Keep an open mind.

The older I get, the more loosely I hold my beliefs and opinions. Instead of thinking about how right I am, I try to ask, “Where am I blind? What am I missing?”

In Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor, she talks about the concept of quiet listening. It’s about seeking to understand, not defend or interrupt. And not forming counterarguments in your head while your opponent speaks. This is really difficult to do, but the results are worth the effort.

Guideline 3: Get your facts straight.

Before sharing your opinion, make sure you have solid evidence and a sound argument. Check what you read on the internet against snopes.com. And watch out for confirmation bias.

Getting your facts straight can be summed up in three tips:

  1. Always be sure of your data.
  2. Never mischaracterize the opposing view.
  3. Never resort to personal attacks.

As a leader, if you don’t verify your argument, you could easily end up embarrassed.

Guideline 4: Be willing to state your view but with humility.

You’re not always right. None of us are. To civilly discuss differences, you’ll need to admit you may be wrong. This is humility.

Luci Swindoll taught me a great lesson about humble responses. In answer to her critics, she would say, “You know what? You might be right.” This statement diffused a lot of tension.

There’s value in opposing opinions, but they may not come out unless you create an environment that’s safe for dissent. Some of your best counsel will be from people you disagree with. Don’t miss out on that because of your need to be right.

Next time you feel tension rising, remember these four guidelines: begin where you agree, keep an open mind, get your facts straight, and state your view with humility. I might be wrong, but I think you’ll like the results.

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