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Civil Discourse and the Importance of Self Reflection

The Doe Team

by The Doe Team

| November 9, 2021

How understanding yourself can make you better at handling difficult conversations, online and offline.

Not sure how to engage with people in a productive and comfortable way? Some of the challenges in that regard involve other people, their debate style, their knowledge level and so on. Other challenges come from our own style of interacting, our own personal biases and our own ideas. Read on to learn how self-reflection can make you better at handling difficult online and offline conversations.

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Self-Reflection Defined

Self-reflection, or introspection, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a reflective looking inward; an examination of one's own thoughts and feelings.” It is the act of evaluating your motives and beliefs. 

Do a web search for self-reflection tips and you will find lots of advice on self-improvement, journaling, processing negative feelings, practicing self-compassion and more. What do those tips have in common overall? They deal with the individual and only the individual. 

Self-reflection can be useful even if you don’t invest too much time in it. You’ll learn tricks for making the process more efficient in the next sections. Remember, the point of civil discourse is to share ideas and opinions without fighting, attacking, displaying contempt or arguing.

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The Key Functions of Self-Reflection

We all have ideas about people or ideologies or schools of thought. Different people pay attention to different things. Some people can be set off by certain words or phrases, and some of the ideas and assumptions we bring to conversations can have unintended consequences. Self-reflection helps you improve your communication style as you take stock of your own behavior and thinking. Here are five benefits of self-reflection:

  1. Discovering your own assumptions - You may have unfounded assumptions that you just haven’t taken the time to recognize and evaluate. 
  2. Recognizing what sets you off - Most people have emotional responses to certain negative words or phrases. Knowing what triggers you is the first step to managing your reactions. 
  3. Learning to manage your responses - Once you know what words, phrases or opinions trigger your emotions, you can intervene, tamping down the emotion and focusing on a neutral, productive response. 
  4. Reviewing and improving - After a difficult conversation, you make time to review your own behavior and look for ways to improve. Ideally, you do this without self-criticism. 
  5. Rehearsing better responses - You might have conversations about similar topics again and encounter the same unfortunate language or behavior. Use your self-reflection time to formulate and practice better responses. 

Making time for self-reflection will pay off, but it takes some commitment. You might also get better results if you build your reflection time around specific questions.

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Self-Reflection Questions

General reflection on your style, sensitivities or shortcomings can be valuable. A little guided reflection can do even more for your ability to have valuable conversations. Consider the subjects you’ve been talking about or reading about. Pick a topic and ask yourself how sure you are of your knowledge about that topic.  

The National Conference of State Legislatures published a checklist for students to use in reflecting on their debate performance. This unexpected source offers some good questions to ask about any discussion, online or offline. Here is a summary of their questions, with a few additions from The Doe:

  • Did I say what I thought without worrying about how the other person will perceive what I said?
  • Did I start formulating a response before the other person was finished? Likewise, did I tend to start forming a response before I finish reading a post/comment online?
  • Did I ask leading questions hoping to make the other person end up agreeing with my viewpoint?
  • Did I ask questions just so that I could turn the conversation to a related topic I’d rather talk about?
  • Did I play devil’s advocate just to get a response from the other person?

You might also want to add these questions to your self-reflection time:

  • What words or references or debate tactics especially annoy me? How can I avoid using those tactics myself?
  • What are my biases?
  • Am I bringing any untested assumptions to the subject?
  • Am I sensitive to certain responses? 
  • Do I find myself ready to go on the attack?

The next time you engage in a discussion over a problem, issue or challenge, you might want to spend 15 minutes reflecting on these questions.

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