The Civil Dialogue Approach to Tough Conversations

Published in


July 1, 2022


Milan Kordestani

Entrepreneur, writer, and founder of 3 purpose-driven companies oriented toward giving individuals control over their own discourse and creation. Milan works to produce socially positive externalities through a mindset of social architecture.

Hi! I'm Milan, an LA based founder and writer, architecting impact-first businesses.

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Sometimes the most difficult conversations lead to the greatest revelations. It’s not easy or comfortable to discuss challenging situations, but with the right approach, you can turn those discussions into productive opportunities to confront your biases and learn something new.

Civil Dialogue is the intentional process of engaging in a conversation while acknowledging the diversity of opinions and enforcing mutual respect.

It is a well-defined dialogue format, not just an ethical code of conduct. Started in 2004 by John Genette, Civil Dialogue is aimed at exploring public opinion on political topics.

Today, the format is used in a variety of settings to enhance effective communication.

What is Civil Dialogue?

Civil Dialogue was created to promote civility in public and personal conversations surrounding controversial topics. The format encourages open-minded discussion on issues where there is not one right answer.

Different people have different opinions, and in the end, everyone is able to walk away with something valuable from the conversation.

I discovered the power of Civil Dialogue early in my career, and it has helped me design workspaces where everyone feels free to think aloud, speak up, and share their ideas with others.

Regardless of how much a person contributes to the conversation, everyone is encouraged to develop opinions and express them confidently.

 The positive impact of civil dialogue is reflected in our meetings, collaborative projects, and discussions. We never discard any thought without hearing it out. From my experience, I define civil dialogue as:

  • Mindful exchange of thoughts
  • Polite discussions without a need to seek solutions

When implemented correctly, Civil Dialogue can help you grow professionally and personally, allowing you to:

  • Broaden your horizons and see the world from many perspectives.
  • Share ideas with others who have different viewpoints than you.
  • Strengthen relationships with others by understanding their thought process.
  • Enhance your understanding with knowledge-sharing in Civil Dialogue.
  • Make informed choices by learning from other people.

How to Practice Civil Dialogue

The Civil Dialogue format is a tried and tested, established communication method that aims to explore varying points of view on tough conversation topics.

 Its main goal is to create a space in which people can share their ideas and work together, even when the topic at hand is challenging.

As a society, we can’t progress if we don’t learn to actively communicate with each other.

Learn Civil Dialogue Examples

In 2004, Civil Dialogue was formulated as a tool for political discussion. In recent times, it has found a place in offices, universities, and public spaces with discussions on a wide array of topics relevant to the setting.

Generally, topics for civil dialogue have a historical context and the discussion challenges our ingrained notions and ideas.  Here are a few examples of provocative statements for conducting a workplace Civil Dialogue:

  • Free speech should be monitored in the workplace.
  • Personal life needs to be separated from professional in 2023.
  • Pregnancy leave is certain to make the career graph steeper for women and men.

These topics call for a thoughtful discussion of the history and its impact, to identify the problems and address them. Civil Dialogue doesn’t focus on who's right and who's wrong.

Instead, the goal is to grow your understanding of the topic at hand, consider new perspectives, and make informed decisions.

Civil Dialogue Format

Civil Dialogue is all about people. It takes place in community spaces like an office, university campus, or meeting halls. Participants come unprepared to the Civil Dialogue without any intimation of the topic.

The Dialogue has a predefined format, as follows:

  • A Civil Dialogue consists of a host, a facilitator, a fact-checker, five active participants, and an audience.
  • The Civil Dialogue is designed with five chairs lined in a semicircle, marked as:

strongly agree,” “somewhat agree,” “neutral,” “undecided,” “somewhat disagree” and “strongly disagree.”

  • The host introduces the goals of the Civil Dialogue (explore “hot topics” with “cool heads”, foster understanding, encourage communication, and respect diverse viewpoints).
  • The facilitator dictates the ground rules of civility and then reveals the provocative statement.
  • The participants then take a chair coinciding with their thoughts and the Civil Dialogue begins.

The Dialogue includes:

  • Introductory comments: 5 minutes
  • Participants' Civil discussion: 15 minutes
  • Audience participation: 10 minutes
  • Conclusion: 5 minutes

At the end of a Civil Dialogue session, participants are invited to provide closing statements and are invited to rearrange chairs to show how their opinions have changed during the discussion.

This step is crucial to reflect an alteration in the thought process within an hour of Civil Dialogue.

How to Behave During the Civil Dialogue

To foster civil dialogue, you need to be polite and respectful. If you follow the rules of polite communication, you’ll be surprised how many people will listen to what you have to say.

Do’s During the Civil Dialogue

  • Be passionate in your stance.
  • Voice how you feel about the statement.
  • Stay true to facts. Use formal language without attacking anyone.
  • Adopt a polite tone. Carefully consider your words before speaking.
  • Keep your comments short and precise, so everyone can provide input.
  • Focus on the issue being discussed, instead of the speakers and their stance.
  • Be respectful of all opinions, even if you disagree with them.
  • Stick to the rules of Civil Dialogue, as the exchange of views will only be substantial when done right.

Don’ts in the Civil Dialogue

Your overall demeanor should be respectful and civil in these Dialogues. Avoid engaging in any of the following misconducts in a Civil Dialogue:

  • Don't get aggressive or hostile.
  • Don't interrupt any speaker. Wait for your turn to speak.
  • Don't direct your arguments to any individual. Instead, address the whole group.
  • Don't engage in name-calling or placing personal allegations on speakers.
  • Don't repeat the same argument.
  • Don't frame your dialogues as making a case to win or lose.
  • Don't make any personal comments.

Who Wins the Civil Dialogue: Criteria for Evaluation

Civil Dialogue isn’t about winning at all. It's a polite discussion that encourages opinions from all perspectives. Its form is quite similar to a contest where a judge grades the participants on their adherence to the ground rules and expectations.

Here are the criteria for evaluating a civil dialogue:

  • CIVIL SPEECH - Maintaining civil communication with a modulated tone. Use of respectful language with effective use of “I” statements.
  • CIVIL LISTENING - Mindful listening to all opinions without interrupting or misquoting any speaker.
  • CIVIL ATTITUDE - Passionately speaking and willingly answering questions on the topic while being respectful, open-minded, and sensitive toward other people’s opinions.
  • CIVIL QUESTIONING AND LISTENING - Asking open-ended questions that prove they have been actively listening, and displaying respect through non-verbal communication like nodding, etc.

Civil Dialogue and Civil Discourse: Similarities and Differences

Civil communication uses many tools to facilitate understanding and mutual respect.  To summarize, Civil Dialogue follows a structured format between people that allows them to express their varying opinions publicly.

Civil discourse is more of a broad topic, encompassing the act of polite and productive discussion irrespective of format. Here are some of the differences and similarities between the two:

Similarities between Civil Dialogue and Civil Discourse:

  • Uses logic and evidence to convince the listeners about your point of view.
  • Informs the audience of various aspects related to the challenging topics.
  • Sets an environment for further discussion on the topic with a more informed approach.
  • Offers an opportunity to connect with others by understanding their points of view.
  • Enhances the learning spectrum of all participants and listeners.

Differences between Civil Dialogue and Civil Discourse:

  • Unlike Civil Dialogue, civil discourse doesn’t have a pre-defined format.
  • Civil discourse offers space for an in-depth understanding of the subject in discussion, while Civil Dialogue is a time-bound discussion of opinions on the subject.
  • Civil Dialogue has a contest-like format, whereas the civil discourse isn’t performative in nature.
  • In Civil Dialogue, have no prior knowledge of the topic to be discussed. Civil discourse is more flexible as the topic is chosen as per the comfort of all participants.
  • In Civil Dialogue, subjects have a deeper relevance with history, politics, and other social sciences. Civil discourse can be conducted on any topic, no matter how small or deep impact it has.

Freedom from the pressure of judgment sometimes encourages people to be their most creative and innovative. Using these communication tools will help you take a more solution-oriented approach to accommodate diverse views.

 Civil Dialogue can make conversations that are generally tough to have into something meaningful. When approached with an open mind, you’ll emerge more informed, aware, and connected with each civil dialogue session.