Category Archives: Civil Discourse

Items around defining and guiding a civil discussion on topics / issues.

Mindfulness and Civil Discourse

I’d like to share some ideas around bringing mindfulness to bear in civil discourse. I view mindfulness from a personal, philosophical (and physiological) point of view rather than within the context of an Eastern Religion. Much of it springs from eastern philosophy and a way-of-being that is not necessarily bound to religion.

Aware of ThoughtsLet me start by establishing a description of mindfulness so we can have a shared point of reference. The more common elements used to define mindfulness are:

  • Noticing our thoughts and feelings without judging them.
  • A focus on the present.
  • A vehicle to calmly contemplate.

I once heard someone say “mindfulness is being aware of your thoughts without being jerked around by them.” I like that definition too.

As I’ve suggested in other posts (here and here), we have the ability to respond rather than react, to pause and return a considered opinion. If we practice mindfulness in general, we can become better at evaluating and less judgmental. We might be better at staying connected to now, and less likely to clutter our current dialog with encumbering tangents from our past.

So how might we do this? Two fundamental elements of mindfulness are:

  • Calming yourself (often by focusing on breathing)
  • Learning to be less attached to the things that pop into our heads.

And before I go any further, my disclaimer: I am no perfect practitioner of mindfulness (or  of remaining calm, or postponing my quick rebuttals). It is, and I am (and forever will be) a work in progress.

zen-foxCatching our breath

One thing I have adopted, when engaged in heated or tough conversation with someone, is consciously pausing and taking one or more deliberate, long breaths. When I do, I am lowering my personal tension. I am inserting a pause.  There are any number of studies that show the positive, physiological changes that follow such a simple thing. Your heart-rate may slow, your blood pressure may decrease, levels of chemicals negatively affecting your body and brain can ebb. Once in a better physical state, we have an opportunity to be in better emotional and cognitive states. When I do this, I am not just catching my breath, I am catching myself. And all this can begin to unfold as quickly as a few intentional breaths. If someone is feeling super tense, really agitated, or overwhelmed, it will take somewhat longer.


Once in that improved state, I can be less attached to my thoughts and less judgmental. I might now view several of my thoughts as options rather than having to choose one. I might realize my anger over something said is there, but not so energetic that it crowds out reason. There may be some thoughts or feelings, or past issues, I can let drift away. I can reduce, minimize, or discard my criticism of my feelings and thoughts. I can do the same for my assessment of the other(s) with whom I am engaged. In that improved physical state, after those few breaths, I can observe what I am experiencing, and evaluate, and then respond. Interestingly, doing this, can support and reinforce the calm that helped it unfold.

Lots of “ifs” and “mights”

Getting around itThere were an abundance of qualified statements in the preceding paragraphs – indeed there were. These things can work and work sometimes better than others. It is a matter of degree, of situation and context, of repetition that reinforces the habits, of remembering to do it in peak moments. We sometimes chastise ourselves when we forget or do it poorly — which could hinder rather than help.

It can be done. It takes practice. That is a word you will hear often when dealing with mindfulness — practice. As we practice, and as we do better, these things get reinforced, more comfortable for us to do, are easier to remember – it gets wired into our brains.


Mindfulness is a very broad subject. I have only skimmed the topmost parts of it here. I am doing the fuller subject, which merits attention, a disservice by  touching it so briefly and lightly. But, as with all my posts, I am trying to keep the content from running too long. I suspect I will do quite a few more posts on mindfulness and will refer to a lot of resources and links about it.

This brief treatment is meant to add another thread in a broader tapestry. Just as I will add threads from psychology about handling cognitive distortions and confirmation bias. These build around another recurring theme. These are things we can do, ourselves, to engage more effectively with others.

Bring MindfulnessIf we bring mindfulness with us to civil discourse, we increase the odds of responding over reacting. We participate in a more civil way. We inspect our own thinking  — not just that of the other guy or gal. They may find that valuable. We might decrease tension and forestall an escalation, as a calmer participant. We will have greater clarity for ourselves. All of these things are potential, positive contributions to civil discourse.


On Being Impressionable

The focus of my blog, and my hope, is to get more people engaging in thoughtful, civil discourse. I sometimes wonder if I am just too far out there in that hope.

lazy-babyAre we too lazy?

One of the challenges is that it takes effort to engage thoroughly and thoughtfully. Going by our gut is so much easier. And as I have stated in an earlier post, this is further undermined by the common practice of reacting instead of responding.

Stress expression on little blond kid's faceA lot of the “news” today is not about conveying facts for us to evaluate. It is about playing to our emotions. A week or so ago, I came across the item below (excerpted from an article (here) which talks about impressionability (emphasis mine):

“Voters are basically lazy,” one Nixon media adviser wrote. “Reason requires a high degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier. Reason pushes the viewer back, it assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand…. When we argue with him, we… seek to engage his intellect…. The emotions are more easily roused, closer to the surface, more malleable….” Nixon’s people hired advertising executive Harry Treleaven, who believed the new medium of television had changed the nature of politics. For him, politicians were no longer policy wonks; they were actors with a narrative.

Under Treleaven, Nixon’s people ignored policy positions and instead used television to create a candidate with a simple message: America was on the brink of disaster, and only Nixon could save it. They hired a brilliant young photographer to put together a series of television ads from stock photographs strung together to create a sense of doom; at the end a voice intoned “Nixon” over an iconic image of the nation. At the end of every ad ran the words: “Vote like your whole world depended on it.”

While the source article is tilted at (against) a particular political party, the cornerstone concept I am pointing to goes well beyond politics or parties. I do not want to make this a partisan thing.

Further on, in the same article, they show a path from this earlier thinking, to the philosophy and M.O. of one news organization today – though others have adopted this strategy too. If you measure success as the number of subscribers or followers, as is normal for the media, then this is a successful formula. If you measure it on how accurately informed the viewership is, then it is far from successful. Much of that viewership, regardless of the source channel, is misinformed (and misled) through, either, cherry-picked subsets of data, opinion substituting for fact, or with emotionally appealing falsehoods. And through repetition the viewership begins to accept the impressions cast by those “news sources” as truths. Using the definition right out of a dictionary, this should be labeled propaganda (not news).

Soundbyte PsychologyThe sound-bite mindset

We have become accustomed to the abbreviated form. It is all around us. Catchy advertising and campaign slogans that stick with us. One-hundred and forty byte “statements” in the form of tweets (yes, I tweet too.) Text messages, with oh so many abbreviations, and sometimes in place of more expansive, face-to-face conversations. When we actually pick up a newspaper or magazine, how often do we read the highlights, the call-outs, just the captions under the pictures, and not the full articles? We want things quick and easy. I confess, too often, and too impatiently, I ask people to “net it out” for me.

A joke made by Woody Allen years ago – fits the situation today:

“I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

I spent a handful of years in marketing and learned about creating “tag lines” (short hand for our key message) and “elevator pitches” (intended to get your fundamental point across as concisely as possible), and the general art of spin. A former colleague used the phrase “fiction with conviction” as both a critique of the discipline of marketing and a description – ironically a sound-bite in itself. When building marketing material, we used a method where you started by defining the one thing you really want the audience to take away, and build out from there. You build out supporting arguments – but not too many. You add specific images to reinforce. You tighten it up, keep it brief, because you want to keep their attention. You hope they remember much of what you put together. But you count on them retaining the core thought or position. Trying to convey some facts, but at a minimum, focusing on leaving an impression. I understand the power of this method.

Distorted presentation with emotional appeal

God and Fence Shaded
Not a caged puppy after all.

It is not just the main-stream media or marketers either. The pervasiveness of the internet, ready access to gadgets to take pictures and video, simple editing tools, allow almost anyone to “publish” content. My blog is certainly an example. Because of this, lots of misinformation is widely available. And “spun” misinformation gets attention and sometimes a significant following.

Just last week, my son sent me a link to a post he said “proved his point” about negative repercussions in the faith community from the recent same-sex-marriage decision by the Supreme Court. The post was about a clergyman being sent to prison for not performing a same-sex wedding. I told him I would look at it later, and asked him if he knew if it was a credible source. He had assumed it was legitimate. I discovered it was a hoax. I shared those findings with him and we talked about the implications of folks reacting without verifying.

Pinochio NoseThen shortly after that, a highly misrepresentative, heavily edited 8 minute video, surfaced – slamming Planned Parenthood. It gained a lot of attention for its provocative headline and premise. It was a very effective in its’ deception. Because of scrutiny and public pressure, the whole 100 plus minutes of raw video were released. From inspection of this raw footage, by multiple groups, it was determined that many of the clips in the edited version were used wholly out of context, and others portions of the edited video actually represented the complete opposite of the truth, of what was said and meant.

Yes we (may) have busy lives and it is convenient to get the synopsis. But have we become too accustomed to this shorthand? I think we have. Can’t we set aside a little time to look a little deeper into important matters? I think we can. I hope we do.

Multiple Issues
Various issues to evaluate

Issue by issue

Stealing a comment I heard on a radio show, when asked which way do I lean (politically), I respond “on what issue?” (yes, I get the irony of echoing the external source). FYI – I have been registered as an independent my entire voting life.

I think the increasing feeling of polarization in our country, is based on the false premise that we need to subscribe to, to lean, right or left, to choose a side. There seems less tolerance for agreeing-to-disagree.  I see this as just another form of convenience, simplification. We can quickly slot another into the group of those we like (us) or those we dislike (them) based on how they lean. And, we probably find it easier to slot ourselves into a group, than to define our views issue-by-issue.

More independents
Reproduced from CNN Graphic

Many polls , of late, suggest that an increasing portion of Americans are identifying as independents (rather than Democrat or Republican). I find that encouraging. I hope some portion of that is attributable to folks wanting to exercise personal judgment per issue, rather than voting the party line.



Am I too far out there in my expressed hope? You’ll have to decide for yourself. Since I am an optimist, and I believe we can be rational creatures, I will continue to post. I will encourage people to look beyond the sound-bite, and not to be too impressionable.
I will encourage people to put in some effort, to engage others, to verify, to adjust and expand what they know, and to decide for themselves.

Minion-ReadingFinally, if you have read all the way through this post to this sentence, it shows you exerted effort and expended time trying to understand someone else’s point of view. Encouraging – Thank you for doing so.


Thought Precedes Reaction

The following content is pulled, and updated, from a piece I assembled a few years ago. I think it is a fair companion to my previous post – Responding over Reacting. I feel it could play an important part in the arena of civil discourse – in much the same spirit as ideas in previous posts, which ultimately put some burden on each of us, personally, to engage better.

I’ll start with the framing points I used in the original content.

  • The following outlines a simple concept – yet it is not common
  • It suggests we have a choice in our reactions and emotions
  • It outlines a sequence
  • Understanding the sequence gives us a chance to do things differently

Common PictureMost believe that our reactions are largely automatic, and that we have little control over most of our emotional responses, which can be represented by a simple sequence: 1) Something occurs; then 2) We feel/react in response.

But I would like to suggest to you that there are more steps in the process and we have more control over our response than is commonly believed.

While certainly not a detailed scientific model, I would like to suggest 4 steps.

Home Run

FirstAn Event Occurs. Lets say a baseball player swings and connects, driving the ball over the left field fence – a home run.


Home Run on TV
SecondYou become aware of it. Lets extend our example with you witnessing it via a live broadcast on a TV at a sports bar where you are watching with some of your coworkers.


ThinkingThirdYou Interpret it. Now that you are aware of it, you process it. Things including your like or dislike for the team or player, how invested you are in the sport in general, if you have a bet with a friend on the game, for how much money, and more, shade your opinion of the event. In this case it is your team, and you stand to collect $20 from your friend.


ApplauseFourthYou act/react in response. Your response flows from your intepretation. And how you feel about it too. Your glad. You and your coworkers cheer and applaud and some cash is coming your way.


So far, nothing substantially different from the two-step sequence. I will expand on the significance of the distinctions shortly.

Lets change the scenario just slightly. Same baseball game, same player, same home run – the same event occurs (first step). You are in the same sports bar with the same coworkers and witness the hit in the same way. Second Step– You become aware in the same way.

UpsetHowever, it is not your team – it is the opposition. That means you will lose the bet. Third Step – You’re going to have a different opinion, and then, fourth step – a different feeling flows. You are upset or angry.

Steps 1 and 2 are the same. Steps 3 and 4 are different.
This demonstrates that the event (step 1) is well separated from our response (step 4).

Now, let’s suppose you don’t follow baseball, did not go out with your coworkers, and never placed a bet. You don’t watch the game at home either, because you have no interest. You know nothing of the game or home run. It never comes into your awareness. If you are not aware of it, Steps 3 & 4 never take place (for you) – no interpretation, no associated happiness or anger. This further demonstrates the separateness of the event from the other steps.

MailboxesLet’s change the second scenario only slightly. Instead of experiencing the home run via TV, you find out about it, after the fact, from your neighbor, and friend, who lives in the same apartment complex, when you are collecting your mail. Let’s say your interpretation and reaction are essentially the same. And since your neighbor is a friend, you blurt out an expletive. This separates the event (step 1) further in time from the successive steps. The awareness step is similar – though not identical.

From these examples, it is reasonable to conclude that the event is not directly responsible for your reaction. We can also see that your biases and interests are the basis of your opinion and the source of your reaction – not the event itself.

Now, another small adjustment. Same as just above, except the neighbor is someone you find attractive, a romantic possibility. Instead of an expletive, you soften the descriptor(s) you use to convey how you feel about the event.

AvoidableThis demonstrates an important idea. You chose to handle your response differently. In fact, you paused during step 3, if only so briefly, and decided that it would be better for you to say something gentler on the matter. The trigger-event has not changed, nor the awareness.
But, you invoked a change at step 3 – which affected what followed.

Shading PerceptionColoring our opinion

As an event seeps into our awareness (step 2) we engage our memories, biases, concerns, expectations, prior feelings, other sensations, etc. Blended together they color the formation of our perception (step 3).

Setting aside, for now, reactions to genuine threats of imminent danger driven from our reptilian brain, I submit that we have the ability to exercise more control over the shading we apply to events than we give ourselves credit for.

Here is an alternative example. Let’s say a person says something about us (step 1). And we hear it (step 2). We decide (step 3) what we think of the comment and thus how we feel about it (step 4).

It is OKShade greenTo tune this, let’s say the person is a friend. We (decide to) give credence to their statement because we know them, they have some acumen in the subject area, and they know us. We color our perception accordingly and feel OK.

Now let’s add a twist. Assume no difference in the words or style of delivery (step1 is the same) and we hear it in the same way (step 2).

Shade redUmbrageThe person is not familiar to us, or with us, and we know little of their credentials. We shade it differently (step 3) and take umbrage (step 4).


We own how we feel

The actual message content (the same in both cases) is not responsible for our resultant feeling. It starts the process, but our perception, and our coloring of it, the feeling from it – we own. It is incredilbly common, in our society, to say and hear “they hurt my feelings.” And it may seem like splitting hairs to some – but that common utterance is not accurate. Being more precise – they said something, and we decided to let it bother us (or not). Because steps 3 clearly belongs to us, we consequently own how we feel about it.

An opportunity

So, all this leaves us with an opportunity. An opportunity to step-up on our own behalf. To pause and adjust at step 3. If we think back, many of us may have been taught, when we were young, to count to ten before getting angry. Good advice – because, in the intervening seconds, we can (if we try) get a hold of the thoughts stirring our (potential) anger, check them for accuracy, and also weigh the options, before getting to anger or an alternative state.

How about memories?

Again, trying to keep it simple, let’s say a memory is a combination of steps 1 & 2. It gets conjured into our awareness. We could have guided our thoughts toward remembering, or something else could have triggered the memory. For now, let’s leave it at that.

Baseball MemoryLet’s say we recall that home run six months later. Then we ponder it (step 3) and our feeling follows (step 4). We may likely have a very similar reaction to the original one. But, maybe not – time may have provided distance and perspective.


As expressed earlier, the event of six months prior does not trigger our response directly. The memory is the beginning of the process. Again the event is well separated from the reaction. We cannot truly say that the home run is responsible for how we feel now. Our recollection (step 2) then our perception (step 3) is the source of our emotion (step 4). We own how we feel about the memory too.

If we so choose, we have the ability to adjust our perception (step 3) about that past event in a broader context of other things and much that has happened since.


zen1Perhaps not easy – but worth it

I’m not suggesting this is necessarily easy. Especially if we are like many — practiced in just reacting. I say practiced meaning having done it over, and over, again.

I am suggesting it is both possible and beneficial.

For many, my spelling this whole thing out comes to “duh – we knew that” or “we already do that.” To them I say “Terrific.” Like I said when I started, it is a simple concept that I think is not commonly followed. And I think showing the distinct steps is worthwhile.

Learning PianoFor those to whom this is foreign, getting from an inability to do so, to an ability, will also take practice, repetition. With practice this can become like second nature (as we may have previously assumed automatic reactivity was).

I think it is worth it. First, for our own sake, and more broadly for our relationships and exchanges with others. Even if they do not choose to temper (interesting word in this context) their thoughts and response, our doing so might help keep a tense dialog from getting worse – and possibly help steer it back toward a productive end. If both parties can leverage it, imagine how much more we might advance instead of spinning in circles.

It can help in day to day living. And it can help civil discourse.

Agreeing to Disagree

I see allowing for the possibility of agreeing-to-disagree, as an essential component in the realm of civil discourse. Let me frame what I mean by agreeing-to-disagree. I believe the conclusion of a healthy, possibly energetic, but respectful, exchange will be:

  1. agree disagree reconveneWe come to an agreement, which could include compromises – and the exchange is concluded.
  2. We agree to disagree, allowing the other their own opinion – and the exchange is concluded.
  3. We agree to reconvene, and work toward conclusion – which is either 1 or 2.

Let me clarify that when I suggest an exchange is concluded (above) that does not necessarily mean the subject is closed or finalized (though it could). I submit it means one topic or segment, among one or more, has been exercised to its’ conclusion.

Using that framework, a few questions to get thoughts flowing:

  1. Generally, how do you feel about the subject?
  2. Are you OK with agreeing-to-disagree with someone?
  3. Do you think it is an unworthy compromise, or copping-out?
  4. Currently, in personal exchanges and larger social contexts, do you think it is happening:
    • too seldom?
    • too often?
    • often enough?

The answer to that last question, certainly depends on where you stand on the ones preceding it.

To make my own positions clear: I think it is very important; I am OK with it; it is not copping out; and it is happening too seldom.

Certainly, there are some situations where it is easier to incorporate than others. But I submit that we ought to keep it in play as a standard feature of dialog, as much as possible.

I think the ability to agree-to-disagree is crucial to successful, civil discourse, and the advancement of relationships and causes. The importance of spirited exchange, the ability to get to a conclusion, and the fact that I think this occurs too infrequently, are among the reasons I started this blog. I hope to spur more civil discourse.

founding fathers debateHistorical Precedent

I hold a deep seated belief in the importance of healthy debate. It was the cornerstone of how this country, its constitution, was established – complex debates, between men of deep conviction and differing views, on the structure of individual rights and government. All those debates resulted in deeply-considered compromises. And by necessity, there would be times separate groups would end up agreeing-to-disagree.

I think the freedom of speech portion of the first amendment was about more than protecting thought and speech. It was also about encouraging them, encouraging continued healthy debate – in order to advance our society. The founding fathers, intentionally or unintentionally, modeled the behavior (certainly not flawlessly). And I think they had faith that their inheritors, citizens and not just successive political representatives, could, and would, follow the example.

It is a mistake to assume this is a special process (following steps 1 – 3) reserved only for the founding of nations or lofty undertakings. It is wholly applicable to one-on-one interactions between friends, family members, and colleagues. Wholly applicable, as long as you are amenable to the possibility that conclusion of a discussion or argument might mean agreeing to disagree.

In this post, I do not intend to cover the points of those who subscribe to the more polar premise that arguments are either won or lost. Some will be won or lost. Many will yield compromises. Many could allow for agreeing-to-disagree. I do intend to cover those ideas more expansively in a successive post.


6 or 9In emphasizing the importance of including the option to agree-to-disagree, I’m not suggesting over-willingness to surrender your position, nor taking a shortcut past thorough exploration of ideas. Those who know me well, know how enthusiastically I can go after making a point. I sometimes push hard, and with myriad supporting arguments, to make my ideas and position clear. I do so, understanding that my counterpart (I hesitate to use the word opponent) has the same right to argue the counterpoint(s) with equal vigor. I feel I am obliged, a word I generally dislike, to hear them out as I would have them hear me out. I do so, because I know they have the right to hold, and hold to, an opinion different from mine. I do so, because I know I can gain from the exchange. I do so, knowing it is a path to reaching a conclusion as described above. That conclusion may well end up being agreeing-to-disagree. And if that is where we conclude, we can go our separate ways (or not). I’m OK with that.

The Value of a Differing Opinion

An important, traditional, component of civil discourse, emphasized and embodied in the founding of this nation, is the notion that we gain by encountering an opposing opinion.

It seems to me, that lately, this concept is being marginalized or, worse, no longer considered. To some, to seriously consider the others position, is a jeopardy. If some portion of another’s idea is tenable, we somehow lose. It is likely a byproduct of win-lose thinking, in place of flexibility, openness, and negotiation toward progress and advancement. I hope we can reverse this trend.

healthy debate 1Healthy Debate

I believe in “healthy” debate. I was raised in a family where we were allowed to, even encouraged to, respectfully, speak our minds. I do not see the word confrontation as a negative term – though it could be. I was startled to learn my spouse believes confrontation essentially equals condemnation. That equivalency was very foreign to me. I can grasp that concept. I can see how some might arrive at that conclusion, and how some might subscribe to it. But, I do not.

The best treatises on liberty, and society, are emphatic on the subject of freedom of thought – including the equal freedom of others to hold ideas that conflict with our own. That freedom of thought and expression is not only the best way to protect society from tyranny, it is the best path to advancements. The outward expression of that free thinking, in words written or spoken, and the equal accommodation and expression of the counter position, is full civil discourse.

This was how the American Constitution was negotiated and crafted by the founding fathers. It was also declared in the topmost amendment in the Bill of Rights. It does not end there. We need to continue to define and improve this society through vigorous, civil discourse.

Two Ideas same timeQuoting F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I surmise that some people, believe that in doing so, they will fail to function, or lose in some way. I don’t think it takes some special (first-rate) intelligence to hold opposing ideas in our mind. I think we are all capable of the feat. We just need to practice it.

In debate class, students are encouraged, if not driven, to explore both sides of the subject to fully prepare for a forthcoming debate. Some might simply view this as the best path to “winning” the debate. It certainly improves their chances. But more importantly, whether they realize it or not, they gain insights, and invaluable cognitive skills. Such work, such exploration, need not be limited to formal debates or those trained for them. They can be incorporated into our own thinking, evaluation and daily interactions.

Opportunity for gain

An excerpt from an article by Robert P. George about Academic freedom, highlights such opportunities for gain.

truth-magnifying-glass“[John Stuart] Mill points out that when one’s views are challenged there are a couple of possibilities. Our critic might be right, and we might be wrong. If, by presenting reasons and compelling arguments he moves us from error to (or closer to) truth, then we have gained, and should be grateful to the critic who corrected our mistaken beliefs. The other possibility, of course, is that our critic, though a reasonable person, is wrong and we are right. In that case, by listening to his arguments and engaging them in a serious way, we will have deepened our understanding of the truth and appropriated it more fully and securely. Again, we have gained.”

In like fashion, I’ve said, on more than one occasion, that criticism does not diminish me, it informs me.

We can easily extend this to the gray areas, in addition to the near black and white distinctions above. In applying it, we learn, we correct, we adjust, we gain.

All of this potential gain, is missed if we dismiss, or discard, or aggressively silence, contrary positions.

And we also have the civil option to agree-to-disagree and go about our business without hostility.

marty feldmanI realize that this dichotomous simultaneity of thought might be supremely uncomfortable to people who prefer a more polar approach – win or lose, black or white (not gray), right or wrong. And similarly, it is probably distressing for the many who have been raised, or trained (in this instance, essentially the same thing), to follow rules and not question authority.

6 or 9However, I am in the “gray” camp. Staying within my philosophy, I am compelled to allow them their point of view. I emphatically defend their right to have it. I am also well served to occasionally evaluate and re-evaluate both points of view. I will try to engage folks within this framework – even if they will not engage in-kind. We both stand to gain from such exchange – from civil discourse.

Substance over Style

The English language, the only one I can speak and write, leaves tremendous room for both error in delivery, and misinterpretation in receipt. This is complicated by other factors like body language, tone, etc. There are some who are comfortable in public address to a room, or even an auditorium, full of people. There are others who struggle to communicate one-on-one – especially with a difficult subject. At a basic level, for the sake of civil discourse and truly advancing a subject, let’s please try to focus on substance over style.

Convincing People

Among the most convincing, are those who can articulate thoughts in a well organized manner, making it easy for an audience to follow and buy-in. More effective still are those that can do so and in an impassioned manner. In personal settings this could be an effective clergyman, a good salesman, a subject matter expert, or a con man.

hitlerAn audience, a crowd, even a nation can be swept up by the conviction of an effective orator. Though there is little redeemable about him, there was a German Fuehrer who captured many hearts and minds with strong, passionate, hyperbole and many falsehoods. A lunatic and a con-man combined.

mad_scientistConversely, there are climate-scientists today with crucial, factual, messages to convey. But, they are less able to penetrate the general public’s thoughts and actions because they are not smooth or orchestrated in delivery. While the overwhelming amount of evidence, and scientific consensus, clearly identify the causes, the threats, and scary trajectory of global warming, a few continue to succeed in stalling action because they are more effectively controlling a counter message. Style is winning out over substance in this example (for now).

It would seem we are somewhat predisposed to follow the forceful and eloquent more easily than folks lacking those qualities. But we can engage more actively.

With that said, while a message poorly delivered should not be too easily dismissed, neither should one well constructed and delivered be automatically discounted. I encourage active discernment.

More than the words

crossed armsAnd then there are the non-verbal elements: facial cues, body language, tone of voice, etc. People trained to do public speaking learn a variety of tricks in order to improve their ability to deliver ideas. Tricks such as: effective (and ineffective) gestures and physical stances; methods of looking at and connecting with portions of the audience; pace of message; varied tonality; and more. I have been fortunate enough to have received some training is this area via work over the years. I confess, I can leverage it pretty well in public speaking, and yet not so well in difficult personal encounters. Most of us are not trained in this way. So, we are probably encumbered in relating important thoughts because we are unaware of how some non-verbal signals weaken receptivity in others.

More commonly – small groups

Most civil discourse happens in a one-on-one or few-to-few dialog as opposed to the orator and the crowd. So here, we have an opportunity to do better.

A few ways we can seek substance over style include:

  • Active listening – really focusing on trying to get the content
  • Check-pointing – Stop and ask the other(s) to see if what you think you heard is what they meant. If not, allow them to reframe, adjust and clarify.
  • Willingness to respond to check-pointing – If they want to confirm, help them. It means they really want to understand your point. Try rephrasing for clarity.
  • Allow someone to rephrase – Don’t hold too fast to their first utterance. Let them try to clarify.
  • Make allowances for non-verbal mistakes – look past them, if you can, for the “meat” of their message.
  • Respond rather than react – Try to evaluate and interact rather than judge what they mean. (see a post here for more on this).
  • Be wary of “Making Meaning” – We all bring our biases and suppositions to the table. Be careful that you are not shaping their words and intent into your pre-supposed version of what they “really mean.”

Common to all of the above is that these are steps we take ourselves. Behaviors we can enact. A good portion of the burden is on us. Being a passive participant in civil discourse is silly. Being a passive aggressive participant is beyond counterproductive.

A specific example of Making Meaning

iphone4 txt msg SOBI was communicating with someone via text message on an important and difficult topic. This is someone with whom I am very familiar, very close. After sending one message, I was dumbfounded by the mean-spirited-words I received in return. I re-read what I had sent and could not see what I had sculpted that would elicit such a response. Later I talked to the person face-to-face to try and understand if, and why, my words had angered them. They admitted theirs was an angry response. The reason: “because of my tone of voice.” I’ll let that sit for a minute. My tone of voice? Via a text message? I think that is a pretty strong example of making or adding meaning beyond what I was actually communicating. Ironically, I had tried a text exchange in order to mitigate errant non-verbal cues including tone-of voice.

I also must admit, I am as guilty as anyone of making meaning on occasion. It is something we all do, and important to try to minimize in crucial exchanges. Making meaning taints the substance of the dialog.

Another Example

There is another (filtered) example I would like to share. I asked someone close to please provide and answer to a question that was very important to me. They had avoided answering it repeatedly in previous attempts to elicit a response. I had done my best to create a “safe” dialog and gained agreement to have a conversation. I had even practiced establishing a clear and calm way to frame the question. I asked the question. They answered, and their first response was very hard for me to hear. I asked them If I had heard them properly (check-pointing, and in this case hoping I had heard wrong). I actually said something like: “Do you know you said X in response to my question?” They said “no” I was mistaken – they had not said that. I asked them to rephrase. They did. That is an example of trying to put some of these ideas into practice.

Now, in order to lend what I hope is credibility to this example, I will share that, unfortunately, in their rephrased response, they said essentially the same thing. They realized that is what they had originally said – and meant. The substance of their response was not what I would have preferred. But it was accurate, authentic – the real thing. The good news is that we were able to get around it eventually.

I’ve decided not to provide an example of a “fully” effective use of the suggestions above in this post. If brief, it would be too filtered and appear contrived. To sufficiently flesh them out would make for too lengthy a post. Perhaps I’ll craft one in a future contribution.


So, in the name of improving civil discourse, and more, I encourage all of us to put in the effort to reflect, and question, to accommodate awkwardness, and check, and validate, what we thought we heard, what we thought was meant, what they really meant – look for the substance (over the style).

Responding over Reacting

Emotional Response 5As a society, I think we have gone overboard on the “let them have their feelings” thing. Please allow me to qualify that position.

First, I believe we are feeling creatures. And, we are absolutely entitled to our emotions. What I want to explore, is how we process events and feelings and how that affects civil discourse.

Young Man Having Counselling SessionIn recent decades, psychology and therapy have made great strides in qualifying the importance of acknowledging feelings and working with them. In order to help a person in emotional pain, first empathy then exploration. Sometimes just being empathetic will suffice. In order to help ourselves, first identify how we feel, then explore to see if the feeling has a valid, or false, underpinning. I am a strong proponent of these things and the cognitive therapy model. More on that in a future post.

Mic and HeadphonesAlso in recent decades, TV & radio, talk shows, movies, court cases and such, have increased public awareness to the first half of this dynamic – the importance of acknowledging feelings. By itself – not a bad thing. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the other half of the equation – personally owning how we feel and then act – has not been given the same attention, emphasis or depth of consideration.Imbalance 1 Admittedly, it is the more complex half. I think the result of this disproportionate emphasis, is lots of people acting in highly-charged ways and justifying their behavior as a natural, even unavoidable, byproduct of their (hurt) feelings.


I believe that this imbalance is undermining civil discourse (and relationships).

So, I would like to continue to expand using two cornerstone concepts:

  • Our feelings flow from our perception of events.
  • We have the ability to pause when an event (or comment) occurs, before responding.

Let me work backwards with those concepts. First, in most cases, and there are exceptions, we have the ability to gather our thoughts about an event or comment and sculpt a considered response, instead of just automatically reacting. Yes, we have lower brain functions (reptilian brain) that instinctually drive immediate reactions to real, imminent danger. But we have higher brain functions that allow for reasoning before reacting. In my opinion, we do not consistently teach or enforce this notion. I think the imbalance mentioned above, and longer held (inaccurate) social assumptions, has a lot to do with it. Some suggest this pause could equate to suppressing our “true” emotions. I disagree. I do not suggest suppressing or stuffing down our emotions. I do suggest we can actively manage them.

That leads to the first cornerstone concept – our emotions come from, flow from, our thoughts. They are not automatic. There is a sequence:

  1. an event occurs
  2. we perceive the event (or not)
  3. we process the event (thinking)
  4. we then feel as a result of that internal processing

In step 1, the event is a thing unto itself. It could be something happening outside of us, like a person running by. Or it could be something inside us, like remembering the taste of a slice of fresh peach pie. In the first instance, if the person running by were not in our field of vision, we may never have perceived, or been aware of, that occurrence. If we are not aware of the runner (step 2), then steps 3 and 4 never occur. We don’t have a feeling about something completely outside our awareness. On the other hand, if we do come to awareness of the event, because we turned and saw them as they ran by, or someone tells us about the runner, we move to step 3.

ThinkingIn step 3, we digest the information about the runner, and form an opinion about it. The opinion can range from a simple acknowledgement of “some people run”, to a critique or liking of their outfit, to disapproval because this is not a place where someone should be running, or some other conclusion. Our opinion is often, but not always, based on the context of the event, AND most certainly based on our past experiences which affect our opinions. Once we have formed our opinion, which is likely to be very rapidly, we move to step 4.

In step 4, we transition from our opinion to how we feel about it. There is an emotion, and possibly a physical sensation, associated with our distilled perception of the runner. If we liked the outfit, we have a particular feeling (I’ll let you label it for yourself). If we disapprove of their actions, then some form of negative feeling (mild or otherwise) is associated with that disapproval. Or if disinterested, our emotion might just be a very mild and very brief “hm.”

The time span from the beginning of step 1 through the end of step 4 may be infinitesimally small. But it is not instantaneous nor is our resultant feeling unavoidable and automatic. We have the ability, during step 3, to intervene, to elongate our evaluation and shape our opinion. You may have been exposed to this if you were taught “count to ten when you are angry” when you were young. In elongating our evaluation, maybe we realize we don’t have the full context of why they were running, or why in this place, or other factors. Perhaps there was a valid, urgent, matter to which they needed to attend. That context could make the difference between a comment of derision, and a sense of concern for their well being. We also have the opportunity, during this pause, to challenge our assumptions about the event or person, and shape our conclusion, and the resultant emotion and response.

In the case of recalling the piece of pie, or pretty much any memory, it is sort a combination of steps 1 and 2. Once there, we precede to steps 3 and 4 – we form an opinion about the memory, then a feeling ensues. We can shift our perspective of that memory in different ways. And, in so doing, affect the resultant emotion. We could gather a pleasant feeling because it was yummy. Or we feel sadness because the person that makes it is no longer with us. And we could do both. We can actively choose to spend time in one emotion more than the other.

We own how we feel

Look in the Mirror PauseA crucial point, in all this, is that we, each, personally own steps 3 & 4. We cannot blame another for how we feel. We form the opinion (not them) and that leads to the emotion. So the expression “he said X and made me angry” is a misplacement for the anger. He may have indeed said X (step 1, the event), and that can be labeled as the trigger. We were aware he said X (step 2), and that may lead (via steps 3 & 4) to us feeling angry. But we own that anger. We can pause at step 3 and decide it is less egregious than our “visceral” reaction suggests, and respond with less anger or no anger. Or, with consideration, spawn a line of inquiry to negotiate with the other instead of becoming embattled. Regardless, the event, and the other person, is separate from the feeling. The emotional response is up to us.

That is how I see this folding into civil discourse – and more civil behavior. There seems to be far too much heated, reactionary behavior, in what could be civil discourse today. I choose not to elaborate, here and now, on the potential reasons why such unreasoned conflict is encouraged. That is for another post.

Calm Face to Face 3So I circle back to conclusion on the premise and title of this post. Imagine two or more parties, engaged in a difficult conversation, with deeply held opposing points of view, conducting themselves in this way – responding to each other rather being entrenched and reactionary. I firmly believe, that if we learn, practice and encourage this discipline, we can improve our dialogs, advance our points and causes (and society) more effectively, more rapidly and more often.

Let’s be Civil

My hope in starting this blog, is to share ideas in the areas of civil discourse and a more rational approach to discussing and working through issues. Let me say, I make no claim to be an expert. I intend to share my opinions (distinguishable from edicts and maxims) and hope to solicit other perspectives. Thus the name of the site / blog — the plural was meant to include varying perspectives from multiple sources. From multiple perspectives we can generate new or refined approaches – or at a minimum, additional insights. I hope to spur dialogs – and even dialogs about having rational dialogs.  I expect the blog/site to morph  and grow over time, and to include various topics.

Some Initial Thoughts

I think the notion of civil discourse is fading from our society. A number of the hallmarks of civil discourse seem to be missing from a lot of our exchanges. I intend to do posts on various facets, posing some ideas and alternatives for consideration. I will highlight a couple thoughts here — just to get started.

Topping the list is being civil (or not). It seems we are more prone now, than in the past, to get off-topic and into attack mode. And we do so all too quickly.  There is an awful lot of name calling, blaming, and elevated emotions in place of connecting with the humanity in the other(s) and/or actually solving a problem.

A close second is a missing willingness to “agree to disagree.” In my opinion, and I do not think I am alone, polarization is growing. Not just in politics, but in people’s individual positions and approaches. I see an awful lot of win-or-lose thinking taking place. “Conclusion” of an argument, a civil one, used to mean: 1) coming to an agreement, which may include compromise; 2) agreeing to disagree, or 3) deferring with a commitment to reconvene in order to get to 1 or 2. Option 2 bespeaks tolerance, and a lack of it denotes the opposite. Perhaps tolerance is too uncomfortable.

Third, and core to all of this, is a diminished rationality in our approach. We are absolutely entitled to our feelings. We are emotional creatures. Along with that, we possess the ability to pause and organize our thoughts, then respond, instead of simply reacting. Some may disagree – saying reactions are “only natural” and indeed reacting is natural and common. Charged reactions increase the likelihood of a counter-reaction – and a spiraling escalation that is not productive. We can overcome the knee-jerk reactivity with mindfulness and practice.  In doing so, we can improve the odds of a successful exchange and reaching a conclusion  — as defined above.

I think that is a fair start.

More in my next post.




A Few Guideposts

Below are a number of core principles I’d like to suggest and hope to adhere to. It is by no means all inclusive. I will very likely adjust it over time.

  • Civil discourse – Focus on the topic (not the participants). Work toward understanding, and where applicable, solving a problem.
  • Rational dialog – Attempt to use reason and logic to make and support points.
  • Responding over Reacting – We have the ability to pause and ponder before responding.
  • Facts over fervor – Hopefully, making an effort to support an idea with something more than passion for a point of view. Supplying data and/or references lends credence to an argument.
  • Substance over style – A position well crafted may be less valid than a point poorly delivered. Yet, a point well delivered is not automatically suspect. Emphasis on discernment.
  • Definition over defense – Bracketing folks who spend time attacking others and defending their current position without actually defining what their own position is.
  • Avoid piling on – Throwing in other content, usually hinders work toward a current topic. Try to stick to the subject at hand and agree to park tangents for a subsequent dialog.
  • Confrontation does not equal condemnation – Tough-on-the-issue and soft-on-the-person is valid and reasonable. The opposite is counterproductive. People would be well served to learn the difference and practice it.
  • Try to consider the other’s perspective – Sometimes tough. Doubly beneficial in that it can “humanize” your opponent, and it expands your perspective – even if you disagree.
  • Shades of gray – Situations and issues are not often binary, clear-cut, or black-and-white. Expect shades of gray. Don’t just expect it – embrace it.

Common to all of these, is a need for effort, on our own part, to exercise more than our reflexes.