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10 Rules for Civil Discourse

The Doe Team

by The Doe Team

| February 22, 2022

Explore quick tips and guidelines for better discourse.

Chances are you've had a discussion that didn't go as planned. Be it tough talks with a friend or brutally honest conversations with family, we try to enter the chat with good intentions—but good intentions do not a productive conversation make. In this article, we'll explore the challenges of navigating civil discourse and share 10 easy-to-remember tips to maximize the odds of having a fruitful and positive discussion about most any subject.

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What Civil Discourse Is (And Isn’t)

Civil discourse is the art of holding a conversation between two or more persons in a respectful and engaging manner to enhance understanding. In a civil conversation, the goal is to make people feel comfortable and safe while discussing subjects that may be uncomfortable or sensitive in some way.

Civil discourse is not about debating other people’s feelings, thoughts, identities, etc. The purpose of civil discourse is to depict that words actually matter and can be life-changing. It does not mean prioritizing others’ comfort, thoughts or opinions over your own.

In short, civil discourse is not about trying to win a debate or discredit another person. It’s about being curious and learning to better engage with new and different perspectives.

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Ten Rules for Engaging in Civil Discourse Successfully (And Effectively)

Now that we’ve covered the basics, here are 10 rules to abide by when engaging in productive discourse.

Rule One: Don’t assume your counterpart can innately see from your point of view. 

Doing so enforces the ideology that all human experiences are identical and that we all share the same points of view, which is limiting and unrealistic. Even common sense is rooted in our education and experience, so you can get in trouble by assuming what counts as common sense is the same for everyone.  

Rule Two: Don’t engage in personal attacks; guide the conversation back to the topic. 

It is easy to get caught off guard or feel threatened during a dialogue. Try not to respond to either feeling. Instead, remember to take a breath and focus on the most important point of the conversation and what inspired your curiosity in the first place.

Rule Three: Good dialogue depends on your words and your attitude. 

Remember, it is not just about what you say but also how you say it. Try to be intentional about the words you use throughout discussions and the attitude you have initially. Ask yourself: Are you curious, or are you feeding your ego? 

Rule Four: A successful outcome does not always mean agreement. 

No one can win every debate. If you walk away from any conversation feeling inspired, having learned something new or feeling even more curious, then that’s a success. A newfound respect for the other person and their views on a topic is also a great sign of productive discourse. 

Rule Five: Be clear and direct. 

Throughout the course of the conversation, make sure to use concise and succinct language; this leaves less room for misconstrued or misinterpreted messages. Your listener’s education, cultural background and language skills may be different, so do not assume any difficulty on their part is due to lack of knowledge or intelligence. Using clear language places fewer demands on the other party. This is even more important in face-to-face conversations, versus online discussions where you have time to digest what you just read. In short, be careful with your choice of words and try not to use more words than necessary.

Rule Six: Avoid making generalizations and absolute statements. 

Including words like “never” or “always” can reduce an argument or conclusion to a logical fallacy. Do Republicans always try to protect rich people from paying higher taxes? Do Democrats never miss a chance to raise taxes? These statements tend to miss a lot of variation in opinions. By using generalizations, you are signifying to your co-discussion participant that you are inflexible and resistant to change or new information. Generalizations may reinforce stereotypes that can be harmful, oppressive and closed-minded. You should also avoid “mind reading,” which means pretending to know what people think, especially an entire group. Blanket statements about a political party, activist group or community have a high probability of being wrong. 

Rule Seven: Do not respond unless you fully understand. 

Resist the urge to appear as though you understand everything. Use the conversation as an opportunity to learn something new! Ask for clarification if you’re unclear about a topic; use open-ended questions as much as you can and do some research on your own after the conversation. This allows you to better expand your learning and continue your path to a greater understanding and conversation.

Rule Eight: Enter the conversation with an open mind. 

By keeping an open mind, you set the tone for the rest of the conversation. This can increase the likelihood of success. By further expanding your mind frame through optimism and hopefulness, you’ll discover new and unexpected findings and develop intellectual humility

Rule Nine: It’s not about being right but about being curious. 

Conversations are about sharing information, learning new things and increasing your wealth of knowledge and awareness. Make sure to be intentional about whether you want to enter a debate versus a conversation and to communicate this to all persons involved. You might be able to derail an unplanned debate by simply indulging your curiosity by asking questions. 

Rule Ten: Reflect on what you learn as you engage with people. 

What did you learn about the subject that surprised you? Did you have any of your assumptions undermined or confirmed? Did you encounter a totally new fact or opinion in the course of that discussion? Think about both the facts you picked up and the opinions or modes of thinking you may have encountered. What have you learned about your own habits in both in-person and online conversations? How will you do better in the future?

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Embracing New Conversations

With civil discourse, we establish a sense of empathy, understanding and appreciation of different perspectives. Although civil discourse cannot provide complete harmony, it indicates respect for each other’s thoughts, opinions and feelings.

With these rules and guidelines in mind, you can practice and develop a new framework for learning about and discussing any number of topics with intellectual humility, curiosity, empathy and attention in mind.

If you like this content, please subscribe for more. By signing up for our newsletter, you can begin an intentional pursuit of better discourse with people who value civil discourse just like you.

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