Restoring Civility to Our Conversations

Sep 29, 2018
Civility is more than just being polite. It is about our ability and willingness to have robust and respectful conversations about community, choices, and civic duty with people who hold different views.

Cassandra Dahnke and Tomas Spath, Founders of the Institute for Civility in Government, define civility as “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” It is more than just being polite. It is about our ability and willingness to have robust and respectful conversations about community, choices, and civic duty with people who hold different views.

There are so many important topics begging for civil conversations. To name a few:

  • Women’s healthcare rights
  • Racial equity and social justice
  • The environment and climate change
  • Immigration
  • Education

Much of our discourse on these topics has become polarized and politically charged. The tone and direction of these interactions is typically destructive—impacting our health and wellbeing as well as our relationships. Such negativity and hostility triggers a physiological stress response. Cortisol and other stress hormones flood our system, repressing our immune system, fueling fear, and restricting access to the creativity and critical thinking so necessary for finding our way forward together. That’s not good for anyone and not helpful for resolving the complex issues we face today.

What if each of us chose to stop engaging in these debates and word matches—whether in our own minds, on the internet, or with another person? What if instead we chose to shift the conversation, inviting civility simply by asking questions that demonstrate care and respect while creating a positive tone and direction for the interaction?

Here are a few suggestions for how you might use questions to shift a conversation. Ask questions to:

  1. Establish genuine connection. Build rapport before sharing your contrary ideas. Adopt a mindset that says: “I want to know who you are, I value you and what’s happening for you, I want to hear what you have to say and why it’s important to you.”For example, someone says something about white privilege that you disagree with. Take a deep breath and ask them questions: “I’d like to hear more about what you think and how you feel. How does this impact you and your life?”
  2. Create shared understanding. Invite a conversation that helps you and the other person understand one another, without getting into solutions. Adopt a mindset that says: ”I want to understand where you are coming from and why you believe as you do. I want you to understand where I’m coming from and to see if we can find some common ground.” For example, someone makes a comment about immigration with which you disagree. Take a deep breath and ask them questions:“Why do you believe that?” “How did you come to that conclusion?” “What has been your experience; how is this impacting you?” Once they feel fully heard, ask them if they will listen to understand your thoughts and feelings. You will be surprised at how often people open up when they feel heard.
  3. Discover strengths and best practices. Before moving to solutions, it is often
    helpful to first discover strengths in the current situation and what is working in other places. This step usually comes once you’ve established rapport and understand one another. The conversation is a little more open because of that. For example, you’ve been talking about healthcare with someone who holds different opinions about it. You might ask: ”What’s contributing to your health and wellbeing? Tell me about a time when the healthcare system worked well for you.” “Are you aware of any unique solutions that our community or another one offers?”
  4. Clarify shared outcomes. Again, this comes after rapport and shared understanding. Questions here invite a conversation that moves away from how you disagree and towards what you both would like to see happen. You might ask: ”What outcome are you hoping for and what are the benefits of that outcome that you think are important?” “What future vision might allow both of us to feel good about it?” “What is most important for you in order to move forward?”
  5. Identify possibilities. Finally, you can invite a conversation that inspires possibilities. If this follows a shared vision, you’re now in a conversation working towards the same outcome or some shared aspects of the future: ”What might be possible here? What opportunities might we create or what pathways could we design to achieve our shared outcome?” “How might we move towards what we agree on?”

If we all decided to foster civility, we just might start catalyzing relationships across divides, shared understanding, common ground, and possibilities for a future that could work for everyone. At the very least, we might restore a sense of unity and care for one another, even when we agree to disagree. And that would have a positive impact for each of us.

This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of WNC Woman.


You can learn more about the three practices in this article in a new book by Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres, Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement. The work is grounded in Appreciative Inquiry, one of the most effective and widely used approaches for fostering positive change.


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