A key element of civil discourse is knowing when not to engage.
Civil discourse, or the act of engaging in a discussion that furthers awareness and understanding about a topic in support of greater societal good, is critical for overcoming the differences we face across the nation.
According to Pew Research, “Americans have rarely been as polarized as they are today,” with deep divides in views about race, religion, ideology and more. And with the great divide, feelings— not facts—are often drivers of conversation, turning civil discourse into perpetual arguments.
Civil discourse is starkly different from an argument, which is something that stands to undermine the greater good if it disrespects the dignity of others. And, while it can feel as though you’re missing an opportunity by opting out of a sensitive conversation, a key element of civil discourse is knowing how to identify when a discussion is more likely to turn into an argument rather than a conversation that inspires change or understanding.
Recognizing When Not to Engage
Not all people, places or unique situations are conducive to making progress on behalf of equity. Your time, energy and health are precious and finite resources, and not every conversation is worth that sacrifice. Pick your battles by knowing that it may be best to walk away in these scenarios:
You're in a hostile environment: If you feel speaking up would threaten your physical safety, use your judgement before doing so. While it can feel like a heroic effort to go against the current, the world needs your voice to be active in spaces where progress can be made. Remove yourself.
You’re speaking to an irrational person: When facts and logic will do nothing to sway a person, trying to disprove their opinion can cause them to believe in it more (known as entrenchment). Walk away.
Your partner in the discussion is not listening or is unwilling to change: This one feels like the hardest to walk away from. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “If I could just say the thing, that will change their mind.” Allow life to teach this person; it’s not all on you.
You’re just plain exhausted: Fighting for equality and speaking your truth can be hard work when you’re swimming upstream. If you feel you’re in a vulnerable place or your words may do more harm than good, bowing out of an engagement is wise.
Breeding Grounds for Arguments Over Civil Discourse
The following scenarios aren’t always fertile ground for productive conversations, so recognizing them beforehand can prepare you to respond to friction points from a more centered place. Here are a few places where it may be best not to engage:
Family gatherings with conflicting perspectives: Family gatherings tend to be the most trigger-happy events of the year. Prepare an exit strategy or a mantra when moving into these spaces if you think your truth may not be heard.
Places with distractions: When our mind is engaged in an attention-intensive activity, we’re not able to access our full spectrum of awareness in engaging another person. Conversations about topics that matter require your whole self, so driving—or any other form of distraction—isn’t the best place to discuss. Offer to table the conversation until you’re able to give your full attention.
Work: An ill-worded joke or offensive remark may be the result of ignorance, but repeating patterns may be a sign of ill-intent or harassment. If this is happening in your workplace, best not to take it up yourself and report to HR. If this is in an out-of-work scenario, gauge their willingness to have an open discussion privately about why their joke was hurtful.
Dating: Nothing kills the date vibe more than finding out you disagree on important issues you value. Try to get a sense of where your date stands before going out together to avoid being caught off guard. Don’t forget, you can always end the date early.
When Not Engaging Isn’t an Option
Not all things are within your control, so you may find yourself confronting opinions that aren’t based on logic or facts. True freedom, however, lies in knowing that you always have control over your behavior in any given situation, even though you may feel stuck.
Here are some things you can offer in order to steer unpleasant conversations in a more civil direction:
Respond, don’t react: If you find yourself in a situation where your counterpart is adamant on pushing the limits of civil discourse and you’re looking to safely disengage, it’s OK to take your time and reflect on opposing perspectives before responding. A simple “I’d like to think about that before I give you a response” is perfectly fine. Connect to your own truth to be able to give it the voice it deserves.
Ask more questions: Get curious. “Why do you say that? What makes you think that?” Questions can transform inflammatory remarks into opportunities for growth. Remember: Ignorance is the absence of knowledge. This thought can be helpful in guiding your thoughts away from ideas that drain your energy and summoning the resilience you may need.
Be mindful of your behavior: Pay attention to your body language and expressions when you’re caught in a less than desirable discussion. If you’re finding it hard to conceal your outrage, you have every right to excuse yourself.
Curb the desire to interrupt when you’re emotional: This is hard, especially if you’re feeling triggered or your integrity is called into question. Allowing someone to speak their peace may yield more of their perspective that you can address later.
Find common ground: Try to find an article or news source or scenario that you’re both familiar with that you can discuss. If none can be found, offer them a few resources that can help them see things from a different angle.
Remember, at the end of the day, you have every right to walk away.
The word dialogue, meaning “an exchange of ideas,” reminds us of what’s required when we engage in civil discourse. We elevate discussions about sensitive issues when we can bring our heads and hearts to the table. Anything less and we’re justified in walking away to preserve our dignity.
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