Civil
Discourse 101

What Is
Civil Discourse?

Why is Civil Discourse Important?

How to Engage in Civil Discourse Step by Step

Civil Discourse Don’ts

What Skills you Need to Engage in Civil Discourse

Civil Discourse FAQs

Civil Discourse in the Age of Social Media

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What is Civil Discourse?

Why is Civil Discourse Important?

How to Engage in Civil Discourse Step by Step

Civil Discourse Don’ts

What Skills you Need to Engage in Civil Discourse

Civil Discourse FAQ

Civil Discourse in the Age of Social Media

A Tool To Foster Understanding

It often feels like our social media or political leaders encourage us to engage with what we already believe and reject any viewpoint that conflicts with our opinions. I like to refer to this as your own personal echo chamber - a space where your beliefs are reinforced by everything you're exposed to. This is a comfortable space to be in, but not a productive one. 

Fortunately, there's a way to break free from your echo chamber: Engaging in civil discourse.

It can be challenging to find valuable resources to improve your own discourse skills, which is why I’ve created this in-depth guide to help you get started.

Let's Bring Back Civil Discourse

Hi, I'm Milan. I'm the founder of three purpose-driven companies, including NOTA, the world’s first anonymous digital publication that shares verified narratives in hopes of sparking civil discourse and encouraging productive conversations about topics that often get overlooked and under-shared.

Restoring civil discourse is something I care deeply about. It's my "why" behind starting NOTA and for writing my first book "Straight Talk: The Art of Civil Discourse" (available Spring 2023.) By engaging in civil discourse, you create a sense of unity, empathy, and understanding in an otherwise divided world.

What Is
Civil Discourse?

Civil discourse is the productive dialogue that allows people to listen to differing opinions, state their own in a respectful way, and reach a mutual understanding. True civil discourse occurs when people listen to understand, and not simply pretend to be polite to avoid arguments.

Whether you run a school, a business, or lead a democratic society, your words and actions have to be civil if you expect to build trust and build the foundations necessary to make a real impact. Easier said than done, I know. So how can you make the shift? By mastering the skills of productive discussion. This is possible if you keep some key points in mind, which I’m going to walk you through.

60

%

of Americans feel stressed because of current social divisiveness

Source

Fortunately, civil discourse is not all that complicated. Anyone can engage in it, regardless of education or experience. These key elements because they’ve helped me grow three successful start-ups and build stellar teams while minimizing conflict.

Here are the best approaches you can use to conduct a civil dialogue:

01

04

Provide valuable opinions

Civil discourse relies heavily on presenting valuable viewpoints and having genuine, factual, and bias-free dialogue. I find it helps to take a solution-oriented approach and to go into every conversation as a problem-solver. Always keep the discussion open and welcoming, and reflect on the situation, making sure you have something valuable to add, before you express your position.

Be respectfully critical, but also accept criticism

Fostering civil discourse doesn’t always mean agreeing or feeling comfortable. It does, however, require you to be open and honest, inquisitive, and share your opposing perspectives. This will propel you out of your comfort zone, and you should expect to receive pushback from time to time. Being critical of others’ ideologies is natural because everyone approaches a situation from their unique standpoints, but respecting others’ self-esteem while focusing on the problem is crucial. A large part of this also lies in accepting criticism wherever necessary.

Have an unbiased approach

A civil discussion must be free of presumptions and judgments. This means providing equal opportunity for everyone to speak and conduct non-judgemental conversations.

Striving to create an unbiased environment helps in conducting a civil dialogue. When you try to understand the opponent’s views, it develops empathy and helps everybody reach a productive conclusion.

Have a flexible mindset

Civil discourse isn’t about debating or changing others’ mindsets. It’s about learning and respecting others’ perspectives. Starting a conversation with a flexible mind helps you stay focused on the bigger picture.

I always strive to be curious about other people’s standpoints. This helps me broaden my horizon to solve an issue faster, and avoids conflicts or personal attacks. Finding the motivation to do so becomes effortless when you stay focused on learning.

Seek a common ground

The ultimate goal of civil discourse is to resolve problems and reach an understanding all parties are comfortable with. The solution must advance in the general interest of every party involved. How can you get there? The answer lies in seeking common ground and mutual principles behind differing convictions.

Why is Civil Discourse Important?

Humans are social beings. It’s imperative for us to maintain healthy relationships for our survival, and we likely would not exist as we do today without the tools of civil discourse. Courteous communication has contributed to the development of society, culture, and the world as we know it.

Civil discourse preserves relationships even in the face of contrasting opinions. It draws a path to mutual benefit both on a personal and societal level. For me, it opens gateways to the resolution of important issues and helps the people around me feel safe, valued, and mutually respected.

Healthy conversations are important for creating opportunities, preventing conflicts, and for the overall welfare of everyone around you. Civil discourse empowers you to discuss sensitive issues without hurting others or getting hurt. Learning this universal skill helps resolve family matters, business issues, or political polarization. Meaningful and mindful discussion are pivotal to making progress, fostering peace, and maintaining an open marketplace of ideas.

How to Engage in Civil Discourse Step-by-Step

I follow a set of rules that not only help keep my interactions civil and open-minded but also help everyone I interact with stay comfortable enough to share and discuss their opinions. To help you do the same, I’ve prepared this guide so you can reap the maximum benefits of engaging in civil discourse. We’ll walk through practical tips to help you gain a better perspective and bring clarity and an open mind to conversations.

01

04

Set clear boundaries at the start

Setting safe boundaries with the people involved plays a vital role in any civil discussion. It promotes a healthy atmosphere where everyone feels free to express themselves without disrupting the decorum.

If there are no firm boundaries, the chances of personal attacks and abusive or disrespectful acts persist. 

Set clear boundaries at the start

Implementing the following steps before the discussion starts will help in setting safe boundaries:

1.

Remember that civil discourse is about reaching common ground about the issue at hand, not attacking or insulting others. Stick to the issue and don’t lose sight of the problem that needs to be addressed.

2.

Make sure everyone knows their opinions are entitled to respect and dignity.

3.

Regardless of opposing views, remain open and focused on reaching a mutual agreement.

Listen actively

Passive listening isn’t conducive to creating a healthy dialogue. Engaging in civil discourse isn’t about changing the other participants’ views. Rather, it’s about expressing yourself openly and listening to conflicting positions civilly. 

Active listening builds an appreciative environment where the other person feels heard and respected. It develops a sense of mutual appreciation between everyone involved.

Listen actively

Here are a few things that have helped me immensely in improving my active listening skills:

1.

Minimize distractions to help you remain focused on the conversation

2.

Nod to points where you agree with the other person’s take.

3.

Repeat what you understood to make sure you grasped their viewpoint correctly.

4.

Ask for clarification whenever something isn’t clear.

Keep an open mind to varying opinions

It's important to remind yourself that every person has their own cognitive biases. They'll initially see any situation from their perspective.

Having different opinions on a subject doesn’t mean they disregard your stance, it just means they perceive the situation differently. This reminder creates scope for me to explore new aspects and broaden my approach.

Keep an open mind to varying opinions

Here’s how you can do it too:

1.

Have an open mind and stay curious about others' opinions.

2.

Know that differing views aren’t an attack on your belief system.

3.

Be inquisitive about where the other person’s standpoint is coming from, and accommodate that while putting forth your views.

Support your opinion with facts and figures

Stick to the facts. The basic rule of civil discourse is to remain respectful and avoid personal attacks. Sticking to the facts can help keep a conversation on track and avoid leaning on your opinions.

It helps to take the time to make yourself aware of your personal biases, so it’s easier to spot them.

Support your opinion with facts and figures

Here are a couple of things to remember when it comes to sticking to the facts:

1.

Present your arguments backed with evidence and universal facts, rather than just your opinion. By providing evidence, you will be able to make your point understandable and persuasive even when it disagrees with the other person's perspective.

2.

Stick to the statistics. Don’t get swayed by emotions.

Be confident in your demeanor

I find it helpful to use assertive language with a steady, moderate tone while expressing or defending a point. This helps other people feel comfortable enough to share their opinions without aggression. 

Assertive language is one of the ground rules for engaging in civil discourse.

Be confident in your demeanor

Here's how to do it:

1.

Remain mindful and calm to create favorable conditions for civil discussion.

2.

Only choose statements and gestures that add value to the conversation and take it forward.

3.

Evaluate your internal reflection when others speak up, and don’t react on the first instinct.

4.

Be confident in putting forward your views without being disrespectful.

Civil Discourse: What Not To Do

Unfortunately, civil dialogue remains widely misunderstood. I see the majority of people are busy talking, but only a handful are attentively listening. In a world that desperately needs civil discourse, most people don't have a clear understanding of its meaning, let alone what might be inhibiting them from partaking in it. In this section, we'll cover some misconceptions that might be keeping you from engaging in civil interactions.

01

04

Being overly polite

Many people assume civil communication is synonymous with being excessively polite, but this isn’t true. Civil discourse isn't a matter of being a people pleaser, it's about choosing effective discussion over heated disagreement. It’s not about always holding back to avoid differing opinions. It’s about being open to differing conflicts to understand a subject objectively.

Name-calling and labeling

Civil discussion always has room for others’ opinions. Showing respect is non-negotiable. There's no space for derogatory acts like labeling and name-calling. A civil dialogue never results in making someone feel inferior, oppressed, or disrespected.

Making personal attacks

Keeping the personal attacks at bay is necessary for a rational discussion. Bringing emotions into an argument will cause friction and make it more difficult to come to an agreement. Communication techniques that lead to hurtful scenarios are not acceptable. They hinder you from fostering an environment for civil discourse.

Adopting aggressive body language

Putting forth your unfiltered opinion is a fundamental unit of civil discourse. But it doesn’t give you the liberty to be physically or verbally aggressive. Civil discussion is all about proving your perception without resorting to aggression.

Resorting to sarcastic remarks

Sarcasm lies out of bounds for those who want to engage civilly. Passing insulting comments, eye-rolling, sighing, etc., aren’t helpful in engaging in civil discourse. Engaging disrespectfully can hinder conversations with sustenance and make it impossible to carry out discourse driven discussions.

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What Skills You Need to Engage in Civil Discourse

It is important to master some of these basic skills in order to avoid incivility in your conversations. Below is a list of these skills and how you can refine them to encourage more civil discourse in conversations.

01

04

Emotional control

Managing emotions can make or break the flow of an intellectual discussion. You must be able to analyze and manage your emotions and be flexible to show acceptance. Journaling is an effective habit to track your emotions and reflect on a subject. Be mindful in your responses instead of giving into your first instinct and reacting with emotions.

Critical thinking

By using facts to guide your conversations, they will be more meaningful and oriented towards finding solutions. Developing critical thinking skills empowers you to process what is being said, so you don’t rely on assuming the best solution without knowing the facts.

It also allows you to listen patiently, process the situation, and stay focused. Thinking critically to resolve an issue while considering every viewpoint facilitates civil discourse.

Solution-oriented thinking

The goal of civil discourse isn’t to have a winner and a loser, it’s to reach a mutually agreed-upon solution. The best way to do this is to focus the conversation on actionable solutions to the topic at hand, and identifying ways to prevent the issues from occurring in the future. This involves being able to look past the problem (and all of your beliefs and emotions surrounding it) and focus on what can be done to reach a solution.

Emotional intelligence

The goal of civil discourse is to develop a better understanding of any given subject. How else could we better achieve this than by developing empathy? The better the understanding of a situation, the more sophisticated the discourse becomes. It keeps the blame game out of the discussion and eases two-way communication.

Civil Discourse FAQs

01

Can you give an example of civil discourse?

Imagine yourself being unable to meet a deadline because of a team member’s delay at work. It’s a situation where heated personal exchange won’t resolve the case. Instead, you can talk neutrally about their challenges to better understand their views and focus on how the problem can be addressed and respond accordingly to initiate damage control.

02

How do you differentiate between politeness and civil discourse?

Politeness is required to conduct a civil discussion, but both the terms are not interchangeable. Civil discourse requires respecting, understanding, and empathizing, which are all polite social behaviors, but there's more to it than that. Respectful disagreement is also a vital part of civil discourse, as it helps the opponents reach a productive conclusion to a difficult discussion.

03

Does civil discourse resolve conflict?

Civil discourse separates people from the problem, which ultimately helps develop understanding. Here, people discuss productively, knowing their responsibility to find the most feasible solution. Productive conversation and solution-oriented thinking can resolve a conflict effectively.

04

How do you differentiate between dialogue and confrontation?

Confrontation is an argument where involved parties compete to win, often creating an uncomfortable, disagreeable, and disputing environment and leading to personal attacks, aggression, and conflicts often prevail in a confrontation.

On the contrary, dialogue is about looking for shared agreements, createing a comfortable and welcoming environment for open discussions. It’s intended to build relationships, deepen understanding, and actively listen before responding.

95

%

of Americans think civility is a problem

74

%

say civility has declined in the past few years

Source

Civil Discourse in the Age of Social Media

We live in an age of social media. It's great for connecting people across the globe, but it also means exposure to an enormous amount of information. This leaves room for confusion, polarization, and intolerance.

Users unknowingly live in an echo chamber. Social media connects you with like-minded people and consistently exposes you to content that we like and agree with, which alienates you from people who don’t share your views and creates conflict. It restricts you from exploring different ideas and perspectives online. Ultimately, it creates a tunnel vision leading to isolated polarized opinions. Limited diversity with what you are shown online makes practicing constructive dialogue more difficult.

Implementing civil discourse in online spaces is much needed today. People don’t hesitate to blame, insult, and neglect others’ opinions online, but it’s important to avoid such negativity for your mental health and maintain a healthy and productive environment in a place where we all spend a lot of our time.

Here’s how to engage in civil discourse on social media:

1.

Do your research and make yourself aware of the facts before responding emotionally.

2.

Don't feel obligated to engage in conversations with someone whose intention is to be rude or disrespectful. If you choose to respond, take a civil approach by putting the tips above into practice.

3.

View every disagreement as an opportunity to learn about how people from different backgrounds, identities, and social statuses think.

4.

While engaging with "someone's content that you don't agree with, understand that they’re also human. Share your opinion and invite open discussion instead of attacking the other person for thinking differently.

The goal should be to use social media for mutual growth and understanding. Take these steps to use it for healthy and productive discussions for the betterment of society. With conscious effort, we can make it possible to achieve this goal if we opt for civil discourse in the age of social media.

Final Words

Every interaction you take part in can benefit from civil discussion. To make this possible, we all need to hone the skill of engaging in civil discourse. Without it, finding common ground and solutions for a conflicting issue is an unbeatable challenge.

To summarize, here’s an actionable step-by-step guide on how you can practice this valuable skill and make civil discourse a part of all your online and offline conversations:

1.

Set clear boundaries at the start

2.

Listen actively

3.

Keep an open mind to varying opinions

4.

Support your opinion with facts and figures

5.

Be assertive in your demeanor


Honing these skills in my own life has translated to much more productive, open, and creative work environments across all of my teams.

Engaging in civil discourse can transform the way you work irrespective of your position. I can tell you that, without consciously being civil in all my interpersonal interactions, I wouldn’t have the same kind of healthy work environment in my teams that improve my businesses every day.

Why? Because when you’re working to make a big impact in the world, you need your team aligned with you and willing to go to all extents to make your vision a reality. Getting to that level requires you to show up and be willing to have open, honest and civil conversations every day.

75

%

of people would be willing to set a good example by practicing civility

Source