Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek.Barack Obama (1961- )
The aim of this little book is simple: to get us all talking again, civilly, with those with whom we disagree. Civil discourse, it’s been called, and it was once taken for granted.
Evolutionary biology is quite clear that we are hard-wired to treat differences with suspicion; our caveman ancestors weren’t singing Kumbaya around that campfire, to be sure. So, it is understandable that the idea of talking through conflict can feel so uncomfortable as to be off-putting. Engaging in civil discourse about topics on which we disagree may not come as easily as we’d like, but, after spending the last five years reading what so many others have to say on this topic, I’m convinced that we must bring it back, and that we can.
My premise is that learning to manage conflict is possible if we are willing. Think about that. While it may never be actually comfortable, we can learn to disagree without being disagreeable, and we can do it without abandoning our political and philosophical beliefs. This book explains the how.
My memoir, At Home on the Kazakh Steppe, emphasized how exciting, enlivening, and enriching cultural differences could be. In that memoir and in the blog posts that followed, I wrote about how cultural differences (though also often exhausting) add spice to our lives as they help us learn about ourselves. I was particularly interested in those cultural differences, both at home and abroad, that “made me gasp” because they often taught me what I’d not noticed of my own culture. Eventually, I’d wind up smiling in understanding.
Following the US Presidential election in 2016, I found myself confronted with cultural differences I could not imagine ever smiling about. I gasped, metaphorically, for I’d grown up with ever present news stories of the corruption, deceit, and playboy antics of the man soon to be occupying the people’s White House. Juxtaposed against the elegance of the early ‘60s Camelot era that had helped form my political identity, I was angry over the absurdity of it all, sad that I felt so impotent to do anything about it, and afraid for my country and its future.
As incivility rose that year and into the next, my Facebook Friends list thinned dramatically and I found myself wondering why we were all having such trouble being civil. More importantly, why did I not want to engage with any of them?
When I was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, 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. In those days, we’d have guests with divergent belief systems and opt for dinner party civility over possible discomfort among our guests.
These days, politics and religion are no longer taboo, for we tend to surround ourselves with those who think and vote and worship (or not) as we do. Ideological bubbles, some call them, and we live comfortably within their fixed confines. And I’m thinking these bubbles are sadly getting smaller as we become more and more disconnected from anyone who disagrees with us.
My concern about incivility is grounded in the many critical challenges we face. Political and social polarization grow each day, and the issues are often spoken of in absolute terms, with no room for civil debate, creativity, or imagination. We all want to convert each other and if we can’t, we hunker down with those who agree with us. I thought back to my memoir and how I’d so enjoyed the many conversations with my colleague and counterpart, Gulzhahan, around our very different beliefs and practices. We found our cultural differences fascinating and knew neither of us was interested in converting the other. I’ve now come to see those two as directly related.
I’ll go back even further to a conversation I’d had decades before with an old friend. Martha and I had stayed in touch when I moved to Philadelphia in 1994 and she’d come out for my wedding in 1999. A few months later, I was back in Ohio visiting my sons when she and I met for lunch. It’s now been over twenty years as I write this, and the only part of the conversation I recall is the part that severed our relationship: she began to complain that the “coloreds” were moving into her city. She had a very different take on race than I did, and I was appalled.
From where I sit now, having written this book, I wish I could have viewed our difference with more curiosity. I wonder, truly curious, why we disagreed so dramatically. I wish I’d realized we could talk about this difference without me wanting to change her. She’d been a good friend during a time of great upheaval in my life, and I knew her to be a kind and gentle person. Yet I believed if I said anything it would be to educate her, to convince her she was wrong. Afraid I’d fail, I labeled her ignorant (at best) and, ignoring all she had meant to me over the years, I walked away, believing I’d never talk to her again. I wanted peace in my life; I wanted to surround myself with those who believed as I did; I wanted to be comfortable. I never told her I disagreed. To engage with her around this significant difference was not how I wanted to spend my time or my energy.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
This type of disconnection is tearing my country apart. Suicide rates have never been higher; depression and addiction are at epidemic levels. And then there’s COVID-19 and its variants, vaccinations, and mask mandates. It is vital that we do better at talking to each other.
The conversations I describe here are not meant to convince or convert. While one of you may wind up changing your point of view, it is important to understand that this book will not work if you set out thinking that “the other” just needs to change. No. The conversations described here, the ideas presented here, are designed to help you maintain an ongoing civil conversation so that you both come away with a better understanding of where you differ and why. From there, you can both better decide where to go.
As important as political conversations are, these ideas can be applied to any conversation you deem difficult, from marital disagreements and parent-teen clashes to neighborhood standoffs or workplace disputes. And so, perhaps a more inclusive subtitle would have been How to hold a difficult conversation at a difficult time.
Goals: Understanding, Civility, Connection
The need for people with different views 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 — that 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, theoretically at least, when feudalism arrived and the idea of a “Just War” preoccupied political thought.
We may no longer aspire to that “good society” that Cicero wrote of so long ago, but if we want to see the challenges our country faces dealt with reasonably and realistically, if we want to lessen the violence, or if we simply want to enjoy a holiday feast with family members who hold strong opinions counter to ours, we still must be able to talk with those with whom we disagree. But how do we do that?
I urge you to reserve judgment until you’ve reached the end of this book. And know that after understanding, after civility, what we’re ultimately striving for is connection, or reconnection in some cases. We’ll return to this idea in the Conclusion.
How the Book Works
LEAPFROG grew from my notes on civil discourse that my colleague Jeff Kay and I presented to a local League of Women Voters group in early 2017. Those notes became a series of ten weekly posts on my website’s blog, And So It Goes.
Those who follow my blog may recall this whimsical cover design from reader Sharon Lippincott in 2017.
It came at just the right time and pushed me forward, taking my ten blog posts and evolving into the book you are now reading.
Originally, I envisioned face-to-face conversations, two people exploring a single identified difference over a cup of coffee, if not over lunch. However, I’ve since learned that the number of participants playing leapfrog is not fixed: some variations contain a dozen or more players, forming a line as tightly connected as possible. And, in keeping with this, I’ve come to see a small group as the ideal way to begin.
With a small group of friends, you can practice the ideas outlined here while surrounded with support for this often difficult work. However you do it, know that with trust, turn-taking, and an eagerness to be connected, civility, understanding, and true connection is possible. LEAPFROG can be your guide.
The first four concepts in LEAPFROG — Listening, Empathy, Assessment, and Perspective — help us as we listen to the other person. The final four — 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 be heard. Yes, it’s all about listening and being heard. And, as my friends in the Nonviolent Communication movement have convinced me, we can best be heard if we first hear the other.
I present these eight elements linearly only to form an easily remembered acronym. Feel free to leap, jump, or bounce around, taking turns and repeating the elements as your conversation continues, leapfrog fashion, back and forth. This is hard work, scary at times, and it won’t always come intuitively. So read this book with others, practice often, and practice bravely.
At the end of each chapter, there are questions for you to consider. Please take time to reflect on them before you move on. This book is not intended to be read in one sitting. I’m hoping you’ll take a chapter at a time and chew on it a bit (to use a classic Gestalt therapy metaphor) before deciding whether you’ll swallow what I’m proposing or spit it out.
I also hope you’ll take advantage of the resources I’ve collected as I put this handbook together. For those who want to dive a bit deeper, you’ll find them at the end the book. The links are also live on the LEARN MORE page of my website, janetgivens.com – at least they were when this edition was published. Links seem to have an unreliable life span.
Questions to Consider
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 did you learn about conflict growing up? How were disagreements managed in your childhood home? How did your family get 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?