In The National, Joseph Dana wrote: “Social media encourages aggressive discourse. The louder one is on Twitter, for example, the more followers and attention one receives. The more dramatic the update on Facebook, the more ‘likes’ it will get. Given the brevity of Twitter and its inherent commodification of discourse, deep discussion is discouraged. As such, social media provides the illusion of empowering users when in fact it merely entrenches their views, silos them with like-minded people and encourages rude exchanges with adversaries.”
As Jeff Daly reminds us, “Two monologues do not make a dialogue.” It takes two to tango, and two to have a responsible civil discussion about tough topics. You don’t control others, but you can take responsibility for your own actions.
Dr. Eunice Parisi-Carew, author of Collaboration Begins with You, writes, “The key to handling conflict is to make sure people understand it’s okay to have an opposing view.” America isn’t best defined as a melting pot that boils away our differences. It might better be described as a crockpot that when different ingredients are carefully mixed and cooked together produces an unforgettable stew!
The tough issues that tend to fuel conflict are there because there are two sides worthy of consideration. If your goal is to win the argument, you are setting yourself up for a frustrating exchange. Certainly, we want to influence others to consider our position, but as important is fostering better clarity on any difficult issue. Here are some guidelines on how you can do your part to sustain a meaningful civil disagreement:
Be an Interested Listener First: Stephen Covey’s Cardinal Law described in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People states: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Give others the courtesy of listening and working to accurately restate their position rather than immediately launching into attempting to destroy their argument.
Be Pro-Voice: Being pro-voice means putting your focus on what you are for. Aspen Baker, author of Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight, said, “I want a future abortion conversation known for its openness, respect and empathy, so instead of generating more heat, anger and conflict, I practice pro-voice.” Use “I” statements to be assertively pro-voice on any issue without belittling the other side. With ongoing meaningful dialogue, look to clarify differences and identify the common ground on which you can agree.
Avoid Dismissive Comments, Name-calling, and Inflammatory Rhetoric: Beyond the unflattering caricatures are real people who deserve respect. Trade communication stoppers like “That’s true, but…,” “Are you kidding/serious?” or “If you were informed…” for dialogue enhancers like “Tell me more,” “What else can you tell me?” or “I’d love to hear what you think about….” The words you use matter.
Stay Cool and In Control: Thomas Jefferson wisely counsels, “Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.” Avoid emotional escalation by keeping your volume lower, your expression approachable, and your tone assertive instead of aggressive.
Do Your Homework! Seek relevant facts and work together to resolve factual disagreements whenever possible. Solicit and consider input from a variety of stakeholders and sources.
Humbly Admit When You’re Wrong: Adlai Stevenson “Man does not live by words alone, despite the fact that sometimes he has to eat them.” Be open to someone challenging your point of view or your relevant facts. Be able to admit what you don’t know but are willing to explore. Being able to admit mistakes strengthens your cause by showing an openness to thoughtful feedback.
Use the Humor Advantage! By keeping it light, you can defuse tension, help everyone keep perspective, and build rapport even when you disagree. The safest target for your humor is always yourself and your own position.
End Frustrating Conversations with Dignity: Kenny Rogers sings wisdom: “You gotta know when to hold them, and know when to fold them.” Take distance with dignity instead of pushing for victory. Be able to say with a smile, “It’s clear we disagree, and thank God we live in a country where we’re free to do that and still respect each other. You’ve given me a lot to think about. But for now, I’m calling a time out to do more thinking and a little less arguing.” Forcing closure often hardens positions while giving time to percolate often softens dissension.
Senator John McCain reminds us of what Americans should never forget: “(Our disagreements) should remain an argument among friends who share an unshaken belief in our great cause and the goodness of each other. We are Americans first, Americans last and Americans always! Let us argue over our differences but remember that we are not enemies but comrades in a war against a real enemy and take courage from the knowledge our military superiority is matched only by the superiority of our ideals and our unconquerable love for them.”