Summer Break


It’s been nearly three months, which I find hard to believe.  Last we talked, I explained my need for a “Spring Break.” Well, guess what — I’m now extending that into a Summer Break as well. Please be happy for me.

In between the working and the playing, I’ve been writing — obsessed with my small book on civil discourse, which I want to finish before the summer is out.

Do you remember the LEAPFROG series I did a few years ago, the 10-week series on civil discourse? I’ve wanted to work those posts into an eBook ever since, but never quite got around to it.

Last March I did. I love how early drafts have been received and I’m convinced it can serve an important and practical purpose going forward. But, I recognized that while I’m satisfied with the changes I’ve brought to the LEAP chapters, I need more time to focus on the FROG.

To whet your whistle, (Geeesh, how often do we get to say that anymore?) here’s the Introduction.  It makes for an unusually long blog post, I know; I trust you will understand.



Civil Discourse in an Uncivil Age


How to Hold a Difficult Conversation


NOTE: Not so long ago, the third person pronoun “they” was used only in the plural. Today, as we become more aware of the unfairness if not inaccuracy of reverting to “he or him” if unknown, and of the awkwardness of “he or she” or the more ambiguous “s/he,” it has become acceptable to use “they” in singular cases. You will note this throughout.  Perhaps in time our English language will resolve this issue.


Why am I writing this book? My government, this unique American democracy, has always 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, from 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. America’s history is filled with examples of the kind of “dehumanization” at the core of our current incivility.

And yet, I believe we have always learned from those mistakes, we’ve gotten better, we’ve improved. We’ve changed the laws, and we’ve gotten stronger as waves of immigrants brought new blood, new ideas onto our land. This diversity is one of our greatest strengths as a country. We’ve seen the value in difference and recognized that we can learn from each other as we continue to grow. Unfortunately, this diversity is at risk in our current political morass. As the gaps among our various groups widen, how can we come together again as a country, united, unless we learn to talk to one another?

Folks used to gather on the bench outside the post office, or around the wood stove at the general store, or down at the corner bar and engage in their own version of “civil discourse.” The arguments were good natured, even friendly. These were neighbors and friends, eager to say what was on their mind, or in their heart, or from their gut.

We don’t have those conversations anymore. When did you last have a good-natured argument with your neighbor?  Indeed, we are taught that, in polite conversation, we must stay away from the topics that are central to who we are: politics and religion. Worse, many schools no longer teach civics, critical thinking skills, debate, or rhetoric. How will our children learn to differentiate between facts and opinion or be able to hold a civil conversation with someone with whom they fundamentally disagree?

As a country we are struggling today with countless issues — “God, guns, and gays” as someone once alliterated. Going deeper, these issues are often about WHO gets to decide, WHO holds the power, and how porous is the boundary that separates the Haves from the Have-nots. In a monarchy, royalty rules. In a democracy, it’s the people, and merit counts, not heredity. In an oligarchy, it’s the wealthy who decide based on how they might keep or increase their wealth. Today, America may have lost its claim to democracy, as the oligarchs take over. Worse, in an oligarchy, the rest of the citizenry can be kept at bay by pitting the people against each other.

Socrates taught that civil discourse was a “dialectic” — a public dialogue to uncover truth — and would resolve conflicts within a society. Cicero, the Roman orator and statesman of the first century BC, introduced the term civil society (societas civilis). He 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, though I sometimes wonder if it ever actually ended.

After spending the last two years researching and collecting stories, I’m here to tell you that no matter your political, religious, or philosophical beliefs, we all benefit when we can share the ideas that challenge us, get us to think anew, and help us understand one another. We can disagree with someone we love and still love them. More importantly, we can disagree without becoming disagreeable.

In our current political climate, our cultural capacity for sustained and serious debate is low. Anyone watching those Crossfire type news shows where guests are reduced to gratuitous ad hominems and “alternative facts” can attest to this loss of civility.

As important as politics is, this booklet is not limited to difficult political conversations. The ideas given here can be applied to any conversation you deem “difficult,” from marital disputes and parent-teen clashes to neighborhood standoffs over zoning. And so, perhaps a more inclusive title would be, How to Hold a Difficult Conversation at a Difficult Time.

It’s important to begin with a definition of civil discourse. Here’s how I’m using the term: Civil discourse is an intentional conversation between two people who seek to understand a different point of view.

As used here, the goal of these difficult conversations is understanding. Civil discourse does not diminish the other’s self-worth, question the other’s judgment, engage in name calling, threats, or bullying. And, of equal importance, civil discourse is not intended to convert or convince.

Conflict, difference, disagreement, even misunderstanding can arise unexpectedly. 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.

My thanks to Sharon Lippincott for the whimsical cover.

This LEAPFROG model began as a way to structure a conversation about civil discourse that I was asked to present to my local League of Women Voters group. Those notes became a series of ten blog posts, which my readers convinced me should be gathered into a book, and here we are, two years later.

LEAP comes from the verbs Listen, Empathize, Assess, and Paraphrase. Together, they help us as we listen to the other person. The four nouns of FROGFacts (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.

I present these eight elements linearly only to form an easily remembered acronym. Feel free to bounce around, repeating the elements as your conversation continues, leapfrog fashion, back and forth, taking you deeper into understanding and appreciation.

Before we hop into the LEAPFROG model (yes; I did that on purpose) I want to honor the fact that there are cultural as well as individual differences in how we deal with conflict.

Consider these questions before proceeding to L is for Listening: What were the norms in your childhood home about conflict? How were disagreements managed? Where did your family get their news? What current events were discussed?

How have those early rules changed as you’ve matured? Who is allowed to disagree with you? Who is not? What subjects are “off the table” automatically? How must someone behave for you to engage with them in a debate? How often do you talk about current events with people who disagree with you?

For those interested in further study, I give you this list of the resources I used in putting my acronym together. Each chapter will contain additional resources you can use to go deeper into the content introduced in the chapter and, at the end of the book you’ll find a final collection of even more resources.

Teaching Tolerance: A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, more specifically their blog post, Toward a more Civil Discourse

Holly Weeks’ Failure to Communicate (Harvard Business Review Press, 2010)

National Institute for Civil Discourse at  the University of Arizona

The Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution, at Cornell University


That’s the Introduction to the eBook on civil discourse, how to hold a difficult conversation, or LEAPFROG.  I’m hoping to settle on the title soon.  With that in mind, I’ll be looking for a few Beta readers come August. If you are interested, do let me know.

It’ll be late August, maybe even early Autumn, before I return here on a more permanent basis (whatever permanent means). Still, I’d love to hear from you.  How about those questions I posed at the end of the Intro?

And so it goes. . .

24 Responses

  1. Merril D Smith
    | Reply

    Good morning, Janet! Good luck with your project–and enjoy your summer break!
    The cover is very cute. 🙂
    Merril D Smith recently posted…Cinnamon and Snow: HaibunMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Merril. I can always count on you to show up, and I thank you. Summer is now truly here in Vermont as I got my summer slipcovers on the sofa — the one I used to have in Chincoteague. And all the windows are open to let the breezes waft in. It’s a bit of heaven. I leave Saturday for Nova Scotia; have never been there before. Woody gets chicken duty. 🙂
      Janet Givens recently posted…Summer BreakMy Profile

  2. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    You put words into action with this booklet: Good for you, Janet!

    Yes, the cover is attractive, and I like these words especially: “We can disagree with someone we love and still love them. More importantly, we can disagree without becoming disagreeable.”
    Marian Beaman recently posted…A Plate, a Brick: Tokens of RemembranceMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I liked those too, Marian; thanks. I think the fear of becoming (or just being seen as) disagreeable keeps many from moving into conflict. Yet, out of conflict comes great things, I’ve found: vulnerability, connection, intimacy all need that initial conflict. My only reservation is that in trying to make this work for varied settings, it’ll lose potency (get diluted). It’s a balance, but then what isn’t? Stay cool down there in Florida.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Summer BreakMy Profile

  3. Terri Lyon
    | Reply

    I’m looking forward to reading Leapfrog, Janet.

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — Yaaaaay for breaks that produce books. You rock!
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…GardeningMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yay me! Yes, it pays to pay attention to oneself. Your work is in the back of my mind often, Laurie. I think you’ll particularly like the new direction my blog will take, once I’m back.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Summer BreakMy Profile

  5. Susan Scott
    | Reply

    Great Janet, I look forward to reading this. Essential too that we learn the art of listening and are able to walk in another’s shoes. Also, that in vulnerability is our strength.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks so much, Susan. I love how you phrased “the art of listening,” for indeed there is an art to it. I trust I’m introducing the science of it too. “In vulnerability is our strength” you said. I love that; hadn’t put those two together before. I’m eager to connect vulnerability and connection, human contact. But strength! Yes, I can see that too. Thank you.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Summer BreakMy Profile

  6. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Janet, I’m glad to hear that your recent sabbatical has been fruitful, and I continue to admire your energy and drive to turn your ideas into meaningful action. Best of luck conquering the F-R-O-G!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      (Big smiley face here, Tim). Thank you. The F, the R, and the G are good to go. It’s my O — twice as long as the other chapters and I still have more to add. Dilemma time. Must choose. Drat
      Janet Givens recently posted…Summer BreakMy Profile

  7. Amelia
    | Reply

    Was thinking of how I grew up and that it didn’t teach me civil discourse. Yes to treating everyone with respect but difficult conversation not so much. Looking forward to this.
    Amelia recently posted…Weekend Coffee ShareMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Did you have a debate club in your school, Brenda? That can be very helpful in teaching us to detach from our perspective enough to see the other side. That’s a great first step. Here in the states, these opportunities are, sadly, fewer and fewer. Thanks for stopping by.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Summer BreakMy Profile

  8. Paige Bainbridge
    | Reply

    Really thought-provoking. Yes, our country is at a critical time where not just politics, but so many topics seem to carry such vitriol toward the other side. I like that you quote Socrates saying that civil discourse is “dialectic,” a public dialogue to uncover truth. My friend Jim Brown also wrote about the subject in his book Ending Our Uncivil War: A Path to Political Recovery and Spiritual Renewal.
    Best of luck on it! Will be great!
    Paige Bainbridge,

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Paige and welcome. I went to high school with a Jim Brown, and then we in the US had a top notch football (not soccer) player named Jim Brown. Thank you for the mention of his book. It’s on my list to check out, soon as I return from a little side trip to Nova Scotia this week. How to talk to someone we disagree with is such an important issue as our civilizations become more polarized around the world.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Summer BreakMy Profile

  9. Janet Morrison
    | Reply

    I love this book idea, Janet. I look forward to reading it! I’ll continue to miss your blog posts this summer, but I am genuinely excited for you and your book project!

  10. jodie filogomo
    | Reply

    Good luck on the book.

  11. Laurie
    | Reply

    Enjoy your spring/summer break, Janet. I look forward to reading your book!

  12. Bree
    | Reply

    Enjoy your break..although I don’t think your sunning yourself doing nothing! Good luck with your book…#sensal
    Bree recently posted…St John of Tarouca and the fortified BridgeMy Profile

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a blog you'd like to share? I use CommentLuv Click here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.