EngagePerspectivesCivil Dialogue Requires Authenticity and Honesty While Avoiding Hostility
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Civil Dialogue Requires Authenticity and Honesty While Avoiding Hostility

A false notion about civil dialogue often gets trotted out to critique or dismiss the idea. It’s that civil dialogue elevates politeness over candor or the passionate expression of values. That it expects people to bury their actual feelings, or facts they know to be true, beneath a veneer of bland agreeability. That it will sacrifice justice and truth to keep the peace, to avoid offense. Not true. At least not in how we view civil dialogue – and have practiced and promoted it for going on three decades.

group of people having serious conversation

GROUND RULE 8: Be honest, but never mean

How to be authentic in conversation without being mean

We want people to bring their authentic selves – their experiences, their values, their views, and their identity – to the table or the discussion circle. We want them to feel invited to express all of that, inhabiting and invigorating a brave space.

But we implore them to do so in a way that avoids dismissiveness, insult, or hostility towards others in the dialogue.

We can express disagreement or disappointment in someone in a way that keeps the dialogue going, rather than shuts it down. We can be true to our views without being vile to our neighbor. We can question or critique something someone said without questioning their integrity, intelligence, patriotism, or humanity. We can express passionate views or even heartfelt anger without ad hominem attacks.

Staying engaged in the brave space with someone else, rather than using anger and insult to chase them away, is a choice. A less common and harder-to-enact choice these days, no doubt, but a worthy choice nonetheless.

Civil dialogue in a digital era

This choice used to be easier for folks to make than it is now. From Twitter to Facebook to talk radio to cable television shout fests to, sadly our nation’s presidential debates, a culture of insult, snark and attack has risen to toxic levels. The more judgmental and nastier the post, the more likes and retweets it gets – encouraging the cycle to go on.

Younger Americans have come of age in this poisoned atmosphere. They have experienced few examples of authentic, honest dialogue where the participants can disagree deeply but still value keeping the conversation going more than they do courting cheers from a blood-thirsty digital gallery.

So, yes, many of the trends and incentives in our public square today are pushing people towards hostility, insult, and snark. But we can resist those trends. It is, in fact, the patriotic thing to do. Because, if we keep going the way we’ve been going, we might not have a functional country much longer.

Be honest but never mean. Find a way to speak your heart without wounding another person’s.

A place for righteous anger

None of this is to deny that righteous anger and biting satire have their place. They are indispensable to speaking truth to power. But they belong in public settings suited for holding the powerful to account – whether it’s Parkland students on the steps of the Florida statehouse, comic Dennis Miller skewering Bill Clinton back in the day or John Oliver doing the same to Mitch McConnell these days on HBO. What may be appropriate when speaking to public officials who’ve failed do to their jobs does not transfer well into smaller, citizen-to-citizen conversations that should aim to foster understanding and identify common ground.

This post is from a series of 6 principles and 9 ground rules for constructive dialogue developed and written by Chris Satullo and Harris Sokoloff for the SNF Paideia course: “Civil Dialogue Seminar: Civic Engagement in a Divided Nation”.

9 Ground Rules for Participating in Constructive Dialogue:
6 Principles for Designing Constructive Dialogue:

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