Civil Discourse

What It Means and How to Engage In It


The Importance of Civil Discourse

The meaning of civility can vary greatly depending on who you ask. Columnist for the Washington Post Steven Petrow defines civility by referencing its Latin root ‘civilis,’ which relates to citizenship and giving oneself for the greater good. Essentially, taking part in a formed and functional society means living and interacting with people you may not agree with. Civility, in this sense, makes respectful discourse seem like a civic duty. Although that connotation may resonate with many people, it is up to each person whether or not they take part in discourse at all. Everyone has a choice how and when they interact with others that they disagree with.

Civility Is Not Just Decorum

Civility may often include, but is not the same as, decorum. In fact, civil discourse may produce heated and somewhat impolite debates at times. Teresa Bejan argues that civility is the courage to disagree with someone and have a discussion about it face-to-face.

Discourse demands that there be an open, in-person, and engaged discussion. That does not mean that both sides have to agree at the end. And nobody has to win or lose; discourse is not a contest. Instead, the goal of discourse is to gain new perspectives and understanding of a particular issue. It can sometimes be much easier to ignore and stigmatize those you don’t agree with. Civil discourse opens a path for the opportunity to create a chance for people to work together towards something greater.

Civility Has Been Weaponized Historically

For marginalized and minority groups, civility has sometimes been a mechanism used by the powerful to oppress and silence dissent; to

promote status quo in the past and today. Examples of this include tone policing, favoring “order instead of justice,” and siding with decorum over dialogue. These abuses of civility have been used to dictate how and when discourse takes place – and even prevent it entirely.

An example is the civil rights movement, where those who objected to it deemed marching and boycotts uncivil. The women’s suffrage movement also experienced backlash due to feared disruption of order in the household. For these reasons, many are critical of the call for civil discourse in fear that they are being silenced.

Civil Discourse Can Require More Than Some Can Give

A common element of civil discourse for certain groups is having to educate those they’re speaking with. Civil discourse and education are inherently two separate things, but they do have some overlap. Educating others on an issue can take additional patience, mental effort, time, and emotional labor. This can become tiring and frustrating. Additionally, some may feel that certain opinions are not worth engaging or acknowledging.

For example, you may not wish to engage with a white supremacist about racism because it would feel like a waste of time. Although civility relies heavily upon respectful and face-to-face dialogue, sometimes a conversation may not be productive or constructive. Thus, people may wish to be selective about what opinions they engage with to avoid potentially unproductive or harmful conversations.

Bridging gaps and gaining understanding calls for face-to-face, open dialogue, but certain situations and beliefs may drive a person away from any kind of discussion.

How Do You Engage in Good Civil Discourse?

How do we engage in good and productive conversations on issues, especially politically-divisive issues where there tends to be disagreement or where people feel very passionately? What are some good ground rules? If you choose to have a discussion with someone with opposing views, it is important to practice good civil discourse in order to have a fruitful and constructive conversation. That does not necessarily mean practicing decorum, although that is often helpful.

Here are some ground rules to take into account when doing so:


Have an Open Mind

Understand that it’s not a contest, and you are likely not going to change anyone’s mind from one conversation. Additionally, recognize that sometimes people are not completely wrong or completely right. Issues are often complex and require nuance. Also remember that sometimes you might be wrong, and that’s part of the process. Be willing to challenge any preconceived notions you have, and be ready to listen to a perspective different than your own.


Focus on the Issue

Steven Petrow urges those engaging in civil discourse to challenge ideas, not a person’s character. Deescalate your language and refrain from flagrant name calling or labelling. It is easy to place someone’s opinions and views on the political spectrum or assume all of their beliefs align with a certain group ideology. However, it is helpful to refrain from doing so, as it puts people on the defense. Focus on the issue at hand, not the politics behind it. There may be times, however, when a statement is patently racist, discriminatory, or offensive. Addressing the impact and historical ties of a certain argument is encouraged, but make sure to continue to focus on the issue at hand. You may need to save larger, historical, or complex issues for further discussions later. There also may be some circumstances where a person’s character is the issue, such as qualifications for appointed office. In those circumstances, it may be helpful to refer to specific examples of behavior, rather than make general statements of character.

Be Genuinely Curious

Instead of asking ‘How can you believe that?’ or ‘Why would you ever think something like that?,’ Brett and Kate McKay suggest rephrasing your questions with ‘What.’ For example: ‘What brought you to this conclusion?’ It puts people less on the defensive and allows them to share their perspective without feeling attacked. Asking good questions show that you’re actively listening, which makes people feel heard and more likely to do the same for you.

Create a Shared Reality

Julia Dhar recommends creating a shared reality. She defines this as a space where both parties understand the other, even when they have differences. It’s practiced best by finding common ground. Coming into a conversation with an open mind means there are times where you will be wrong and/or you will agree with someone’s point. Expressing shared beliefs creates an opportunity to work towards a plausible solution and have a constructive conversation.

Find a Balance of Objective Fact and Subjective Experience

Facts are extremely important to any position, and they are necessary to refute central points. However, it is also imperative to listen to people’s reasoning for their opinions through the use of storytelling. Even when facts may not support their positions, listening to their perspective and life experiences will help you gain insight to better understand their beliefs, which may in turn help you find common ground or convince them of your own argument. Remember, it is okay to disagree with someone, and it can be beneficial to try and understand why they may think a different way. Personal experiences and fears lead people to believe and support certain arguments. If you know a statement is factually incorrect, take the time to explain the reality of a situation without discounting their own experience. Striking a balance between facts and experiences provides an opportunity to develop good escalation and productive discussions.

Know When to Walk Away

Conversations of this nature will often be difficult and uncomfortable. Be aware of when a discussion stops being constructive, and know that’s okay to walk away at that point. Discomfort and tension are natural and likely products of tough conversations, and working through those emotions to address important issues is essential to civil discourse. Nevertheless, understand the distinction between healthy and unhealthy discomfort. Know that it’s okay to walk away at any time you feel it necessary, like if you feel physically threatened or unsafe. If the conversation ends naturally, make sure to express gratitude to the other person for taking time to engage in conversation. Reflect on the new perspective you’ve gained.

Resources: Videos & Online Tools

Meeting the Enemy

Cassie Jaye, director of The Red Pill, discusses her misconceptions and experience with interviewing men’s rights activists. This video explores the importance of listening and storytelling when having a discussion with those with differing opinions.

Three Ways to Practice Civility

Steven Petrow, columnist for the Washington Post, explores the modern meanings and misconceptions of civility. This video highlights the importance of having tough conversations in order to live in community with each other.

Disagree Productively

Julia Dhar draws from her formal debate experience to outline a more productive way to have constructive discourse. This video highlights the importance of challenging ideas over character, finding a common ground, and searching for a shared reality.


Get Along with Political Opposites

Arthur Brooks, author of Love Your Enemies, examines solutions to end the divide in America. This video explores opportunities to persuade others, rather than hating them, to help heal the political divide.

Mr. Rogers’ Shared Reality

This video provides a great example of finding common ground in order to help build a shared reality. Mr. Rogers demonstrates this ability in his testimony for the continued funding of public broadcasting.


Additional Resources

Angry Uncle Chat Bot
Practice your civil discourse skills with this chatbot from the New York Times.

Better Angels
Learn more about having conversations that depolarize, rather than divide.

Living Room Conversations
Explore one model of dialogue intended to facilitate connection across differences.

This website helps you get outside your bubble and see the news from someone else's perspective.