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Civil Discourse 101

We have all heard the term “civil discourse.”  Many of us know its meaning, which is having a discussion in a respectful manner, even if you disagree with the person you are speaking with.  On paper, practicing civil discourse seems easy.  However, it is not as easy as it may seem.  In today’s polarized society, civil discourse seems to be disappearing.  Even conversations that start out civilly could turn into chaos.  Unfortunately, this is the reality of many discussions that turn political.  At times, people can lose friends simply due to a difference in political opinions.  This is another unfortunate reality of discussions that turn political.  There are even multiple instances of people being silenced in the workplace, classroom, or anywhere, solely because they have different political opinions than somebody else.

Last Saturday, a workshop was held to discuss the growing issue of civil discourse disappearing.  The one way to bring civil discourse back to life is to practice it.  This workshop was put together by the Siena College Class of 1968 and a nonprofit organization called Better Angels.  The mission of Better Angels is to promote civil discourse and to discuss political and controversial topics rather than debate them.  A key component to civil discourse is understanding the other side and learning how the other side came to have the opinion they hold.

I was fortunate enough last Saturday to be able to attend this workshop.  As a person who enjoys discussing politics, I found this workshop both interesting and helpful.  This workshop taught four main skills, which include speaking, listening, tone setting, and handling difficult moments.  Upon learning each skill, the attendees were split up into a red group and a blue group, based on where each person falls on the political spectrum.  After the attendees were split into groups, they were split into partners to practice each skill.  Using these skills, we discussed the topics of gun control and immigration, which are two very controversial topics in society today.

I thought it was interesting that people from the red group were not partnered with people from the blue group for these exercises.  However, this was a crucial part of learning about the other side.  For the exercise, one partner had to act as somebody from the other side.  For these exercises, I was in the red group, since I lean more right on the political spectrum.  Before attending this workshop, I found it difficult many times to consider the other side and even difficult to listen to it.  After practicing the listening and speaking skills, in particular, I found it easier to hear the other side out.  Not only was the conversation I had with my partner more civil, it was also more thought-provoking and enjoyable because I and other attendees not only heard the other side’s stance on these issues, but also learned how the other side formed the stances that they hold on these issues today.

It is because of workshops like the one I attended and the cooperation of those who want more civil discourse within our conversations that civil discourse is starting to return in society.  With our current polarized society, bringing civil discourse is an uphill battle, since many people are defensive about their opinions.  That does not mean that civil discourse cannot return to our conversations.

1 Comment

  1. Eva Galvin

    Great article, Sean! Thank you for bringing up the need for civil discourse an “endangered species” of our time. You are right on the money. Glad you liked the Better Angels Skills Training as well and that you have benefitted from this effort.
    I hope to discuss all these with you again.

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