Think of the person, group, or organization that just drives you nuts. Think of that guy who always parks too close to you. Think of that relative who always pushes her political views a little too aggressively. Think of the friend who gets unfriendly when your religion comes up.
Get ready, because you're about to learn how to engage in peaceful dialogue with them.
Right now, you’re probably asking yourself why you need to know this in the first place. After all, we can just avoid the people we don’t like, right?
But is that what you really want? Does a life spent avoiding conflict by nervously peeking around every corner sound relaxing? Wouldn’t it be more pleasant to directly deal with contentious subjects, get them out of the way, and move on with your life? Isn’t harmony better than discord?
Even more importantly, if you feel strongly about a subject, wouldn’t it be great to actually make a difference? To—gasp—actually change someone’s mind, and make an ally out of an enemy?
The possibility of peace is why each of us needs to learn to be civil, to dismantle ideas rather than people.
You’re probably now wondering what difference you could possibly make. Remember—individuals build families, families build communities, and communities build nations, so the path to civility truly does start with you. It starts with each of us.
So let’s take a look at how you can take your first few steps along the path to civil discourse.
Learn to listen.
Listening is always the first step on the road to civility.
If you’re like most, you may not realize how bad a listening you may be—it’s likely that you spend much of your conversation time plotting what you’ll say next and reinforcing your own arguments rather than truly taking in what the other person is saying.
This is a problem. When we don’t listen, we don’t take in information—we don’t understand who we are speaking to, and what they are speaking about, which leads to miscommunication and anger.
When we fail to understand those we engage with, we fail to be civil.
To listen effectively, take the time to reflect on what the other speaker says. Don’t use the time during their turn at speaking to contemplate your response. Focus on their words, their body language, their meaning. Allow time for the speaker to pause and think during conversation—don’t be quick to interject at the first opening.
When your turn comes, be sure to paraphrase what the other speaker says, saying it back to him or her to verify that you truly understand the argument.
Ask questions. Probe. Find out exactly what the other speaker is saying. This not only nets you more information, but also makes the other speaker feel valued and listened to.
Avoid logical fallacies.
Logical fallacies are commonly made errors in reasoning that crop up during arguments and debates—both in-person and, more frequently, online. They are also the root of confusion and misinformation, both of which perpetuate arguments and delay the resolution of conflicts. Keeping an eye out for fallacies in your own arguments, and in the arguments of others can keep a debate civil and productive.
While there are many logical fallacies, there are two that cause the most contention in our daily conversations with our fellows.
The most destructive is the ad hominem attack, in which you refute your opponent’s argument with a personal attack.
For example, if Edward makes an excellent case for the election of a conservative president, and you refute his argument by calling attention to the fact that Edward had a child out of wedlock, and thus cannot be trusted, you’ve just engaged in an ad hominem attack.
In essence, you’ve tried to undermine Edward’s credibility without actually engaging with the subject at hand. This not only leaves the debate unresolved, but leaves Edward angry and hurt—this is uncivil.
The second most common logical fallacy is the straw man argument, in which you oversimplify or change your opponent’s argument, and then attack this version—the straw man—that you’ve created.
For example, imagine our poor Edward makes an effective case against government-sponsored welfare benefits. Imagine, then, that you argue that people who don’t support welfare simply hate the poor and underprivileged.
Again, this leads only to hurt feelings and an unresolved conflict. Think about your arguments as you engage with those you don’t agree with, and do your best to make your assertions from a place of evidence.
Most of all, treat the person you’re debating with as just that—a person, deserving of respect, even if they don’t extend the same to you. Set a good example, and they just might follow.
Most important of all, be kind.
Not everyone is cut out for debate or argumentation, and that’s okay! You have a hidden strength that you can tap into.
That strength is kindness.
If kindness infuses every relationship in your life—including those with your opponents—your very poise will be all the argument you need.
If you’re of a particular political party, and someone thinks everyone belonging to that party is a jerk, your kindness will change that perception. The same goes for every aspect of your worldview. Be a kind ambassador for your group—whatever that group is.
There are many resources for those who wish to practice their kindness, but a great one is Saunti Feldhahn’s “The Kindness Challenge,” which plunges readers into a 30-day challenge to practice kindness in specific areas of life.
Remember the goal.
Our goal, when we engage in any form of debate—from religion, to politics, to parking spaces—shouldn’t be to “win”. When we try to win, we lose.
Rather, the goal should be to uncover the truth. We should come to debates with a teachable attitude and a humble heart. We should be ready to be wrong.
That means learning to listen so that we understand empathetically. That means avoiding logical fallacies, so that we do not miscommunicate. That means practicing kindness, so that we do no harm.
All of these things add up to civility, and when we are civil, we change ideas and systems rather than simply attacking one another. We become constructive rather than destructive.
If we are civil, we sow the seeds for better families, better communities, better nations, and a better world.