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.
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 FROG — 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.
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.
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. . .