It’s been a long gestation, longer than you’d expect for such a small book. But it’s finally here — sort of — and you, my readers, were a big part of it (you’re in the Acknowledgments).
I’m excited to announce that the paperback version of my civil discourse handbook
is here, will be here soon, by week’s end, hopefully, and ready to be dissected, deconstructed, and shared. And read, though probably not in one sitting even though it is just 10,000 words. It’s less than 90 pages, with some blank pages throughout for you to jot down notes.
More than just a gathering of my ideas, this is a collection of the wisdom of many thoughtful organizations, researchers, and everyday people whose works I’ve read and wanted to share. I’ve included them within the book. And, I’ve listed them again, with live links when available, on the LEARN MORE page on this website.
I encourage the book’s readers to bring to my attention additional works to include. Let’s show the world just how many people are interested in holding a civil conversation.
In addition to simply adding more civil discourse resources, I’m looking for opportunities to test out the premises that LEAPFROG sets forth. Might it be a weekly online gathering as we work our way through the eight parts? A single talk at your local library? A single weekend workshop? Let your imaginations soar; I am open to all suggestions. I imagine I won’t agree with them all, but I’m open to hearing them.
I’m hoping the book (the title at least) will be a conversation starter at next week’s Thanksgiving Day gatherings and, beyond that, perhaps a stocking stuffer at Christmas.
Here’s the book’s summary from the back cover:
Conflict, difference, disagreement, even misunderstanding can arise unexpectedly during the course of anyone’s day. And, while remaining civil is not always easy, it is important to remember that hate and fear are neither the natural nor the necessary responses to difference. Nevertheless, we may get triggered, sucked into an argument we didn’t see coming, propping one set of facts up against another with neither side listening, eventually wondering what the hell just happened. But given the ability to freely posit a confident opinion and the experience of being involved in an important conversation, I believe people will find each other again. This book can give you a way to be heard and to hear without judgment. Then watch as magic happens.[learn_more caption=”Here are the two back cover blurbs”] Janet Givens has captured the essence of civil conversation in the clever acronym LEAPFROG. In restorative justice work, we begin with establishing that there is something in this universe which connects us. It might be where we live, it might be our ancestry; often it is our shared values that help us move a conversation from trying to convince to being curious. Thank you, Janet, for paving the way. May we all be courageous enough to initiate a civil conversation. Susan Cherry, Executive Director, The Community Restorative Justice Center, Inc., St. Johnsbury, Vermont
Janet’s LEAPFROG describes— in an accessible and fun way— the nuts and bolts of how to have a civil conversation and how to effectively remain neutral in the context of an encounter with someone with a different view. This is a tool to use every day! Karen Bufka, Community Organizer, St Johnsbury, Vermont.[/learn_more][learn_more caption=”Finally, here is the updated INTRODUCTION”] Why am I writing this book? My government, this unique American democracy, has long been an exciting experiment to me. Constantly striving to improve, her watchwords, until recently, have been progress and inclusion.
She has made many tragic mistakes over her nearly 250 years. The depravity of slavery, the genocide of our Native population, the blatant discrimination of each succeeding wave of immigrants, and the arrogance of interning Americans of Japanese descent during WWII are only the most well-known. America’s history is filled with examples of the kind of “dehumanization” at the core of our current incivility.
And yet, we have grown from those mistakes. We’ve changed the laws and we’ve gotten stronger as waves of immigrants brought new blood and new ideas onto our land. This diversity is one of our greatest strengths as a country and, for many, defines who we are as Americans.
Some would say that is a liberal point of view and, wanting to be certain this booklet attracts all Americans, I turned to the cognitive linguist George Lakoff for guidance. Lakoff has written (in Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think) of American voters as falling into two distinct metaphors of family structure: the strict, authoritarian parent (conservatives) and the nurturing parent (liberals).
According to Lakoff, discipline, obedience, and patriotism align strongly with conservative worldviews. As a result, the issues of military might, national security, and crime will be viewed differently by conservatives and liberals. Even “responsibility” gets divided, with conservatives advocating for personal responsibility and liberals, social responsibility.
Liberals push for multiculturalism and advocate for travel and new experiences (it was the Democratic presidency of John F. Kennedy that gave us the Peace Corps, for example), while conservative values of tradition, stability, and an affinity for the familiar have also woven themselves throughout our history and have helped to steady the ship of state during times of upheaval. Indeed, the mixture of conservative and liberal positions is yet one more example of the range of American diversity.
This diversity is now at risk, as is the stability we once took for granted. My concern around the unprecedented (in my lifetime) level of incivility we are currently experiencing is that we face critical challenges as we look ahead. We can all come up with our own critical challenges list, I’m sure. The point is, whatever the challenge we face, we must learn to talk to those with whom we disagree. The alternative is wholly unacceptable.
Keep in mind, we are talking about our brothers and sisters, our uncles and aunts, our fellow citizens; people in relationships that matter to us who hold strong opinions, have needs they want met, and vote.
Gaps among our various demographic groups widen with each new poll. But I believe we can come together as a country, we can meet the challenges ahead if we can only learn talk to one another. If we don’t start today, then when? If not you, then who?
When did we stop talking to each other? When I was growing up, the Emily Post books on etiquette taught that, in polite conversation, we must stay away from politics and religion, two topics that are central to how we see ourselves. And, back when we would have had guests of divergent belief systems, we’d opt for dinner party civility over winning an argument.
But these days we don’t have to stay away from those topics because we hang out more and more with those who think and live and vote and worship as we do. Ideological bubbles, we call them, and we all live comfortably within their familiar borders.
Worse, as more schools eliminate classes in civics and cancel debate teams, critical thinking and rhetoric skills suffer. Rhetoric teaches us to argue without anger; debate offers the chance to argue a position dispassionately by taking one opposite your own. Wouldn’t they be valuable skills to foster?
Our country is struggling today with countless issues — “God, guns, and gays” someone once alliterated. Going deeper, these issues are often about who gets to decide, who holds the power, and how porous the boundary is that separates the “Haves” from the “Have-nots.”
In a pure monarchy, royalty rules. In a democracy, it’s the people, and merit is what counts. In an oligarchy, the wealthy decide based upon how they might increase their wealth, while the rest of the citizenry are kept at bay by pitting the people against each other. Is that where we are today?
The need for people of diverse views to be able to talk together has a history as long as democracy itself – back to the Greeks. Socrates taught that civil discourse was a “dialectic” — a public dialogue to uncover truth — and would resolve conflicts within a society. Later, Cicero, the Roman orator and statesman of the first century BC, introduced the term civil society (societas civilis) and held that human beings are inherently rational and have the capacity to gather for a common cause to maintain peace. That era ended when feudalism arrived and the idea of “Just War” preoccupied political thought until the Enlightenment of the 18th century, theoretically at least.
After spending the last two years researching and collecting stories, I’m more convinced than ever that we all benefit from ideas that challenge us and get us to think anew. No matter our political, religious, or philosophical beliefs, we can disagree without becoming disagreeable. More importantly, we can disagree with someone we love and still love them.
In our current political climate, our cultural capacity for sustained discussion over serious disagreement is low. Anyone watching news shows where guests are reduced to shouting over each other can attest to this loss of civility.
Conflict, disagreement, and misunderstanding can arise unexpectedly during the course of anyone’s day. And, while remaining civil is not always easy, it is important to remember that hate and fear are neither the natural nor necessary responses to difference. Nevertheless, we may get triggered, sucked into an argument we didn’t see coming, propping one set of facts up against another with neither side listening, eventually wondering what the hell just happened. We say more about this moment in Chapters 3 (Assess) and 7 (Observe).
As important as political conversations are, the ideas given here can be applied to any conversation you deem “difficult,” from marital disagreements and parent-teen clashes to neighborhood standoffs and workplace disputes. And so, perhaps a more inclusive subtitle would be, How to Hold a Difficult Conversation at a Difficult Time.
In any case, the first goal of these conversations is understanding. A difficult conversation need not diminish the other person’s self-worth, question the other’s judgment, engage in name calling, threats, or bullying. And, of equal importance, these conversations are not intended to convert or convince.
Not intended, that’s the important point. One or the other of you may wind up changing your point of view. This is not to be negated, of course. But, it is important to understand the steps outlined in this booklet will not work if you set out thinking one of you just needs to change.
Instead, think of your disagreement as a mystery that intrigues you both. Strive together to discover just where your impasse is, why it is you disagree so vigorously. What have each of you not understood until now? If you can think of it as an adventure you’re undertaking together, and you’ll go far.
Civility does not mean the mere outward gentleness of speech cultivated for the occasion, but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good. Mahatma Gandhi
LEAPFROG, an acronym comprised of four verbs and four nouns, grew from my notes on civil discourse that I presented to my local League of Women Voters group in early 2017. Those notes became a series of ten blog posts, which my readers convinced me should be gathered into a book. Here we are, two years later.
The verbs are Listen, Empathize, Assess, and Paraphrase. Together, they help us as we listen to the other person. The four nouns — Facts (Forget them for now), Respect, Observation, and Gratitude — guide us as we present our ideas in a way that will increase the likelihood that we will also be heard. Yes, it’s all about listening and being heard.
At the end of each chapter, I’ll present questions for you to consider. I hope you’ll take the time to reflect on them before you move on.
For this introduction, I want to honor the fact that there are cultural as well as individual differences in how we deal with conflict. To that end, please consider these questions before proceeding:
- What were the norms about conflict in your childhood home? How were disagreements managed? How did your family get their news? How were current events discussed?
- How have those early rules changed as you’ve matured? Are any subjects “off the table” automatically? How must someone behave for you to engage with them in a debate? How do you talk about current events with people who disagree with you?
Resources used in putting my initial LEAPFROG acronym together:
Teaching Tolerance: A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, more specifically their blog post, Toward a More Civil Discourse, April, 2016.
National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona
The Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution at Cornell University
Holly Weeks. Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them. Harvard Business Review Press. 2010 [/learn_more]
NOTE TO SUBSCRIBERS: If you’ve not yet received your free eBook, please drop me a note. It went out on Monday evening with my fingers crossed. Word-of-mouth advertising is so often the best, and, to that end, I hope you’ll talk about the book with your friends, your local librarian, the independent bookstore owner in your area, and the uncles and aunts, cousins and siblings and anyone else you’ve been leery of talking with these past few years. Better yet, give them a copy of the print book.
Your PDF can be opened on a Kindle reader, and if you prefer a different eBook reader, let me know. I’m still deciding whether to distribute wide or rejoin Amazon Select.
Once again, I’d hoped to be able to link to the paperback in this blog. Alas. But soon. Soon.
NOVEMBER 21: and here we are. Both versions at one time via this link.
Next Week is Thanksgiving; we’re going to take a new look at the myth.