Civil Discourse in the New Age

How do we hold a civil conversation with someone with whom we fundamentally disagree?

How can we disagree without becoming disagreeable?

However do we begin?

If you’ve been paying attention over the past few months, these are not new questions.

It used to be folks could gather on the bench outside the post office, or around the wood stove at the general store, or even down at the corner bar and engage in their own version of “civil discourse.”

And life was good.

But we don’t have those benches, real or metaphorical, so much anymore.  If we do, I’d like to know about them.



My thanks to dhoelbinger – for this image of the Rick Warren quote.

You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.
Rick Warren (author of The Purpose Driven Life)


For the past few weeks, I’ve been busy reading, thinking, talking, and writing about Civil Discourse in preparation for a presentation in early April.

And I thought, How better to chew on it a bit than to present it here, at And So It Goes and see what the ensuing conversation teaches me.

And so it goes.

Let’s start with the basics: a definition of civil discourse. As I use the term,

Civil Discourse is a conversation of moral significance that strives to build understanding.

Let me say this a slightly different way.

Civil discourse is an intentional conversation that focuses on the choices we make and the values that inform those choices. As a conversation that exposes how we live our lives, it can get intimate. Throughout, however, its goal is understanding. 

Perhaps that is why these conversations about conflict, disagreements, or differences are so difficult.

Conflict, difference, disagreement, even misunderstanding are the price we pay for being social beings. On a personal level, any one of these can hit us over the head when we least expect it.

They’ve been hitting me over the head on a political level for a few months now.


This one’s from Pinterest, with no name. But thanks.


Let’s back up just a bit.  Civil Discourse does NOT

  • diminish the other’s self-worth
  • question the other’s  judgment
  • engage in name calling, threats, or bullying


How can we find the dispassionate objectivity
that civil discourse demands?

To answer that, I went back to Cicero.  Societas civilis, the civil society, requires speech that supports rather than undermines the societal good.

Speech that supports … the societal good. 

In our current political climate, our cultural capacity for sustained and serious debate is low. Anyone watching presidential debates over the past few decades can attest to that — or those Crossfire type news shows where guests are reduced rather quickly to gratuitous ad hominems and  “alternate facts.”



Thanks to for the image of civil discourse, dead in its coffin

Difficult conversations require courage.
They also require empathy and skill.

Like exercising any new muscle group or practicing any new behavior, the more we do it, the easier it becomes.  But how do we do it?  How do we start? Who goes first? How do we agree on what to talk about?

Preparing for this early-April presentation, I put together a little acronym that I hoped would be of aid for those just starting out in this civil discourse jungle.


But before I explain LEAP FROG in detail, I want to honor the fact that there are cultural as well as  individual differences in how we deal with conflict. We need to start there.

So, before we jump into the LEAP FROG model (yes; I did do that on purpose) next week, I hope you’ll give a bit of time to these:

What were the norms in your home growing up around dealing with conflict?  Where did your family get their news? What current events were discussed? How were disagreements managed?

What are the rules you adhere to today around disagreements? Who is allowed to disagree with you? What subjects are “off the table” automatically? How must someone behave for you to engage with them in a debate?

Can you tell where I’m going with this?

NEXT WEEK: We’ll LEAP FROG into Civil Discourse

45 Responses

  1. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Good morning, Janet! I agree that it is important to have civil discourse–and to find a way to do it.

    But I disagree with your “good old days” depiction of civil discourse. I think the venues you mention were most likely to include people who were of the same race/class/gender and often shared the same views. And if you look back in American history, you will find the discourse was often VERY uncivil, perhaps worse than it is today.

    As for off the table, I think I would find it difficult to have a meaningful discussion with someone who proudly used offensive terms to describe a person’s race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Merril.

      As I got reading about civil discourse, I did wonder if it’s something of a myth. Certainly on the political realm there’ve been few holds barred, as it were. Still, there was a time in small town America where local folks gathered and shared stories and news of the day. It’s possible this only worked on homogeneous rural communities and subcultures. That I couldn’t say.

      More to the point, do you think pursuing civil discourse in today’s climate is a fools errand?

      • Merril Smith
        | Reply

        Well, picture a small town in the1850s or 1950s South–are there black men and white men at that bench? Are there women?

        I don’t think pursuing peace or a civil society is ever a fool’s errand. It may not be obtainable, or it may take a long time, but it is certainly a worthwhile effort.

  2. Lydia
    | Reply

    Do you want your readers to answer these questions here or silently in our heads? I’m really looking forward to the next instalment of this series either way.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Lydia and welcome. I generally post questions at the end to try and focus the ensuing conversation. So if you care to share your thoughts here, please feel free. Nothing is mandatory, of course. 🙂

  3. Lydia
    | Reply

    Thanks for answering my questions, Janet.

    Like Merril, I would also have a very difficult time having meaningful discussions with people who proudly used offensive terms to describe someone’s race, sexual orientation, or other immutable traits.

    I do not have a problem discussing sensitive topics with people who have subconscious biases or who use terms they genuinely didn’t know were offensive. It’s the complete awareness of and pride in being so prejudiced that I find really hard to deal with. I can’t imagine being that indifferent to the pain and harm they’re causing on purpose.

    My family strongly believed in making peace and assuming the best in others. It would take a lot of provocation for them to openly engage conflicts. I’d say that this was occasionally done in unhealthy ways, although they honestly did have good intentions when they taught us to communicate in this way.

    We did not normally discuss the news or current events when I was growing up.

    I am working at becoming more comfortable with conflicts that can’t be easily resolved. Anyone can disagree with me, but I don’t continue conversations with people who are belligerent, verbally abusive, or determined to warp the things I say to them to suit their own agenda.

    Subjects that are “off the table” for me would be anything that question the humanity or worth of people based on their gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. I’ve found that having those conversations only strengthens the resolve of people to continue being prejudiced or hateful because they seem to see the willingness to discuss that stuff as a sign that their ideas have merit.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      You got me thinking with your post Lydia. Thank you. What I came away with is how difficult it is to engage with someone we might not even like. And how it can seem that if you listen, you are giving credibility to the ideas being presented. I can really resonate with that. Then I reread that little poster that’s included. We can listen with an open heart (easier sometimes than an open mind, I think) and yes, I do think we have to allow for the possibility that the Other person’s messsge has merit. That does not mean we agree. And, if they engage in bad behavior, they’ve broken the rules. You needn’t engage. Does that make sense?

  4. Susan Jackson
    | Reply

    Well, growing up my dad would just walk out–I hate debates, I get irritated with hearing the same words over and over–as spicer and newscasters–grrr–so what is off limits–if we disagree we don’t talk about it–trump–but I tell people to pick a diffrent subject when we are together if they want to bash trump because I don’t want to get my blood pressure up. I would have to say this year I don’t know how have civil discourse except to not do it at all–sad.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hopefully we’ll all get something out of these posts over the next few weeks. I think figuring this out is the critical issue of our generation.

  5. Cathy Monaghan
    | Reply

    I also grew up in a non-debating family. “Agree to disagree” was the favorite phrase.
    But, as we all know, ignorance in large numbers is very dangerous. So I think we need more civil discourse to hopefully “educate” more folks on what government is for and how best to run it.
    I too am looking forward to your next installment.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Glad to have you on board Cathy. This is something of an experiment for me.

  6. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, my family of origin also tended to aim for peaceful coexistence, but often times at the expense of having a good healthy debate. Thankfully, that has changed over the years and we have grown to have some pretty lively debates especially with our current events. I value and welcome healthy debate but it does take two sides. If someone is offensive or disrespectful, I will walk away and not engage. Acceptance of differences and the ability to share them is a hallmark of a civilized democracy. May we all aim to preserve our ability to agree to disagree while maintain mutual respect. Thanks for another interesting and important discussion. Yes, you always get me thinking!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Kathy, I’m so glad you’re here. A civilized democracy, I do think we all want that. Perhaps that will be the value that will pull us together.

  7. Charmaine Martin
    | Reply

    Hi Janet, this is a very interesting topic. Recently I have to say that I personally find it very difficult to enter into a civil discourse with someone who is instantly aggressive and bigoted with regards race or religion or even national identity. ie re a suicide bomber from Britain who joined ISIS and a comment ” I wish he had blown up all his family with him, wife , kids, animals the lot” I have come to understand that this persons “truths” dont always depend on rational evidence or considered moral compass, I find myself not turning up to the “argument” because thats what it would entail, no debate. Having said that, I do agree that its not what you say, its how you say it and how you say it is incredibly challenging when you feel passionate about a subject. Perhaps beginning your debate with “I understand why you may think that” or “with respect to your thoughts/opinion” I was brought up in a family that debated and discussed everything, however my mother was brought up in a very religious privileged family, I found it very difficult to talk to her about many things on a one to one. My dad was born from a very poor family in Liverpool, he was a shop steward and a great supporter of workers/ human rights. he had a very high IQ and was a member of MENSA, we discussed every topic imaginable. I do think that there is an absolute need to give an informed opinion that another may not have considered and that silence is certainly acceptance. We can all challenge our own perceptions by listening to others perceptions,however its not necessary to give up our convictions to them.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Absolutely, Charmaine You made an important point. It is NOT necessary to give up our convictions in order to listen to others’. The fact that we all find it a bit intimidating is the issue I’m grappling with. I’m thinking, thanks to some other comments, that we need to start with something (and someone) a little less frightening. Someone who only has purebred dogs, for example, if you only get mutts. Someone who loves motor boats, if you are a sailboat person (the way I once divided up the world). You know. Start with something a bit less consequential and practice. How does that sound?

  8. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Besides the food, my fondest conversations around our table concerned politics. It was of the “us vs. them” variety, often about communism and Stalin’s tactics. I’ve included some of this in my memoir drafts. My father read the newspaper, US News and World Report, and listened to the network news at noon and night. As a Mennonite, he didn’t vote (appalling, I know!), but he certainly was active politically in other ways and accompanied a group to Washington DC to advocate against changing farmland into an air-base.

    Discourse can be civil only if there is no name-calling or shaming of the viewpoints of others. Last night on a documentary about Maya Angelou, I was so proud of her moments of civic engagement, loud, forceful, but not violent.

    Have you ever observed the boisterous behavior in the British parliament? Here is a clip from the House of Commons in session; some of it is funny too:

    By the way, how did you receive my post today? By email notification or via Facebook? I’m still in trouble-shooting mode.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Marian, I have seen clips of the British Parliament before. Had hoped to go, last time I was in London, mostly for the “show” of it all, but alas. Maya is a great example of so many things. Courage of her convictions, for sure. One of the items I did not mention in this first post on Civil Discourse is the fact (IMHO) that I don’t think being polite is the same thing at all. But not worrying about being polite is not the same thing as name calling or shaming. As I wrote, “Civil Discourse does NOT
      diminish the other’s self-worth
      question the other’s judgment
      engage in name calling, threats, or bullying”

      And, as we get further into LEAP ( do so hope it works and isn’t just some contrivance — hokey — comes to mind) you’ll see that in the A (is for Assess) we can make the decision to go forward or to pull away. We do not need to expose ourself to ridicule or shame.

      Have to say, I envy you your dad. Can you tell us a bit about why Mennonites do not vote? I didn’t know that. In fact, that’s a great example of what I’m aiming for here. Here’s a significant difference between two subcultures (in my family, voting was practically a sacred right) and we CAN have a civil conversation about it — come to some additional understanding, etc.. etc. What say you? Let’s practice. 🙂

      • Marian Beaman
        | Reply

        I am looking now at the Rules and Discipline of the Mennonite Church (Lancaster County) which outline guidelines in Article IV (1968). To summarize, members were not to be involved in politics, military service, lawsuits and jury duty. They were exhorted to pray for their leaders and submit to civil authorities unless such requirements conflicted with scriptural teachings. My Aunt Ruthie did sneak off to vote though!

        Nowadays, Mennonites are involved politically and often very vocal about it. Though no longer a Mennonite, I value pacifism and I vote in every election.

        • Janet Givens
          | Reply

          Thanks, Marian. Was the belief that involvement in politics could be corrupting? Or the “of the people, by the people…” was the issue since the Mennonite Church held themselves apart from “the people.” I’m speculating here, and probably informed more by my own religious upbringing. (Billy Graham, to be brief). I’m also very much enjoying the image of your Aunt Ruthie “sneaking” off to vote. I hope you’ll write more about that.

          • Marian Beaman

            I would say “both” in answer to your question – that involvement in politics could be corrupting and that Mennonites considered themselves (at that time) set apart as well.

          • Janet Givens

            As I look around our current political landscape, ‘twould seem they were onto something. I’m wishing now (selfishly, granted) that more congregations followed the “don’t get involved in politics” mind set. ‘Twasn’t that long ago that TV evangelist Pat Robertson ran for President.

  9. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Janet – a great topic to take on, and obviously super timely. Something I’ve grappled with since the election is whether this is a time to seek common ground, as is my natural inclination, or whether it’s simply one of those times in history that we must stake out our respective territory and engage in ideological battle. This of course doesn’t mean that we can’t do both — i.e., fight the good fight while maintaining civility — but it goes to where the focus of our energy should be. I.e., should I invest as much emotional energy as I do in attempting to maintain friendships, to be respectful to people with views I find abhorrent, and the like? In my case, I probably do more of this than I should. At the same time, I know that if our nation is ever to heal, we will eventually need to bridge the divide that separates us and start finding whatever common ground we can. I honestly don’t know the answers to these questions.

    I agree both with you and Merrill in that the “good old days” almost certainly excluded many dissenting voices, some of which are now, finally, being heard. At the same time, there has undoubtedly been a palpable erosion of civility in our public discourse in my lifetime, even among garden variety (i.e., white, middle class) republicans and democrats. I attribute much of this to the rise of right wing media over the past 30 years, as well as the conservatization of the protestant church, both of which have fueled much contempt for viewpoints and facts that challenge certain ideological presumptions. But the left is certainly not without blame.

    What I cling to most is the hope that, beneath our seemingly mutual contempt and vast factual disagreements, many of us still basically want some of the same things. Regarding our borders, for example, both conservatives and liberals want to be safe. We both want trade to be fair. We all want jobs and opportunity. Most would like to see us end our dependency on foreign oil, to have safe drinking water and clean air, etc. Any hope for civil discourse has to start there, I think — with what we have in common, what we collectively want, what we collectively fear, and why. And this does require some level of mutual trust, which can’t be earned with anger, finger pointing, and name calling.

    ‘Looking forward to your further thoughts 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks Tim, very much. You raise the issue that I am also grappling with. WHEN is this appropriate? HOW do we begin? and others. Nicholas Kristoff and Charles Blow, both with the NYTimes, wrote of this recently, and have taken very different stances. I have yet to read them, but want to.

      Still, I feel compelled for some reason to move forward, into the topic. And without turning it into a group therapy session. Egad! 🙂

      • Tim Fearnside
        | Reply

        Yeah – I intentionally left out the part about what I learned about conflict growing up. Let’s just say, it wasn’t pretty . . .

        I’m actually quite glad you’re taking this on right now, and look forward to where it might lead. And hopefully, soon, we’ll be living in a post-Trump America, where the real work of healing will be upon us 🙂

  10. Betty Keller
    | Reply

    Hi. Hope you don’t mind if I jump back to before your questions. I have a much roader definition of “civil discourse” than you. For me, it is simply a conversation on any topic, and can be objective or subjective, but with a goal of increase understanding, it has to share perspective which means that subjectivity is entering the conversation.

    So, for me:
    Civil discourse is an intentional conversation with the goal of better understanding each other.

    It may focus on
    the choices we make and the values that inform those choices,
    our beliefs
    our concerns
    our hopes
    our fears
    our plans.

    As a conversation that exposes how we live our lives, it can get intimate. We may strive for objectivity, but it is important to share our subjective thinking and feeling along with our perspective, or else the other person can not gain better understanding of us. Throughout, its goal is understanding.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Betty and welcome. You can comment here in whatever way works best for you. I only filter out those that don’t add in some way to the conversation.

      For the record, we should mention that I’m working with you and one other on our presentation in April.

      I like your shortened version of the definition. You include both intention and the goal of understanding, which are certainly key. And, as I mentioned, I was going to include the resources I used to come up with that definition in my final post. But I’ll do that in my next one. Wish now I’d done it with this one. This is a work in progress.

  11. Betty Keller
    | Reply

    Regarding family:
    We are of European descent, in America for centuries, and my father was a minister. We expressed differences of opinion, but grounded in loving all of God’s children and God’s creation.

    So the content was to be grounded on “Does it help or hurt others? Would you want to be treated that way? Does it harm the planet we are supposed to steward? Does it help bring us toward a path God would want for us and for creation? What are you called to do, and how are you called to act, to bring about God’s will/eternal life here on earth/later I would express it as God’s “Beloved Community”.

    The communication stye was to be grounded on “How can you say what you want to say in a way that is fair, honest, and respectful, and loving?”

    Frankly, I continue to have issues with being raised to be honest. I can flounder when I am in a social situation where I feel like I should say something nice, even if it is a white lie, and I stand there mute and not knowing what to do or say.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Your comment here reminds me of one of my Buddhist readings, which talks about, “what can I say to relieve your pain.”

      I’m also struck by your final paragraph, Betty. I’m thinking that honesty coupled with compassion is a powerful duo. And honesty alone can be cruel.

      I hope you’ll stick around for future posts. Who knows where they will lead?

  12. Ian Mathie
    | Reply

    Disagreement was certainly allowed in our household when I was growing up but it was understood that one had an obligation to examine both sides of the case and not just push the one you favoured. That way we all learned and general understanding was greater. It also meant that we got a clearer view of each other’s position when we disagreed. Even when we reached the point of agreeing to disagree it was accepted that the subject could be revisited without acrimony if something else relevant came to light.

    From this we learned that as often as not, any disagreement was likely to be founded on a lack of knowledge on one side or other of the argument which, as that knowledge was shared and acquired diminished the intensity and passion of the debate until a point of harmony was reached.

    At the end. even though we sometimes looked at the world from diametrically opposed positions, there was no rancour and we could discuss things in a civil and interesting manner. That still persists today, even though I am now the senior generation, rather than the novice. 🙂

    So it is with most debates in fora like this. I don’t always agree with everyone else, but I’m always interested in what they have to say and we seem able to be civil to one another as we make our arguments.

    Discourse is good and should be encouraged. To do that you have to be willing to listen (or read).

  13. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet – This post was a “two cuppa,” meaning I thoroughly enjoyed reading through it, along with everyone’s responses, over two cups of coffee.

    I can hardly wait for the next installment!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Me too. 🙂 Thanks for stopping in. You’ve now inspired me with a new blog post topic: “how to make a GOOD cup of coffee.”

      Anything with a “right” and “wrong” way is grist for the mill. Fun.

      • Ian Mathie
        | Reply

        I wonder how you will define ‘good’ in relation to a cup of coffee. Will it have milk or cream in it? Will it be lightly or darkly roasted? And will it be made by high pressure filtration or by steeping grounds in a cafetière? There are so many variables that affect its ‘goodness’.
        As a confirmed tea drinker I shall look forward to this theme. 🙂

        • Janet Givens
          | Reply

          It will be made the way G-d intended a cup of coffee to be made: my way. Of course. 🙂 (I never said civil discourse would be easy.)

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