Ideas rule societies, and for an idea to prevail, it has to pass the test of credibility. This credibility test means the idea will be subjected to criticisms, disagreements, debates, and discussions.
People living in Totalitarian societies may not enjoy these processes of arriving at an idea. Still, citizens of a democratic regime are involved one way or the other in the criticisms and discussions of these ideas. Some of these ideas are strongly held group beliefs, while another maintains that the idea is defective.
Furthermore, there are groups of people that are undecided on the merits or demerits of an idea. And other groups still see the merits in both the proponents and opponents of the said idea. These groups check the rationality of their positions by conversing and debating about their stands. Often these discussions result in conflicts and bitter disagreements, which don’t help anyone, let alone society.
But debating ideas is the foundation for a society’s political, educational, and sociological progress. So if the debates are always cantankerous, if we can’t listen to one another and state our positions politely, how will society improve? This makes civil discourse important.
Our society is experiencing these issues today, from polarized social media posts to unkind op-eds and rhetoric-filled blog posts.
The quality of our civil debates is fast deteriorating. No thanks to the digital world and the easy access to it. We’re quick to exaggerate, resort to personal attacks and ignore what our opponent is saying.
But if we’re to forge ahead as a society, we need to be able to have and maintain civil discourse in all settings. How can we do that in a democratic society?
Engaging in a Civilized Conversation
Civil discourse is not performative politeness or consenting to your opponent’s viewpoints. On the contrary, to engage in civil discourse, you must be honest, productive, and politely exchange ideas.
To achieve this, we need to understand the techniques that will help us engage in more meaningful and civil discourse. They are as follows.
Maintain an open mind
Many times arguments are a matter of perspective, so you need to understand that your fellow participant is debating from their point of view. And so, their point is bound to be different from yours.
So keeping an open mind will enable you to understand that the different opinion is not meant to disparage your viewpoint.
For any discourse to be productive and healthy, a set of guidelines should be agreed upon. This boundary maintains decorum in the conversation, and everyone will be freer to voice their opinions as long as they’re within the guidelines.
Although boundaries are pertinent and ensure that ad hominems or conflicts are limited, it is necessary to keep in mind that the purpose of the conversation should be mutual understanding.
Be open-minded. Don’t force your opinions on anyone, and resist the temptation of ridiculing your opponents’ views. Instead, focus on the issue that is being addressed.
Suppose everyone’s opinions are treated with dignity, no matter how outlandish they might be. In that case, we’ll have a greater chance of reaching a common ground.
To meaningfully engage your opponent, you need to understand what your opponent’s position is. Understanding your opponent’s point means actively listening to what your opponent is saying.
Most conflicts arise from people disagreeing with what they think their opponent said instead of the actual point the opposing party is making. Passive listening can do that to you.
Suppose you value the role civil discourse plays in society. In that case, you’ll pay keen attention to what the other party is saying.
Do not set out to change the participants’ views. Appreciate how long it took you to accept that view and understand that it might take your opponent longer to change their views if they will.
If you’re struggling with listening actively amidst all the exchange, repeating what you believe your opponent said, nodding to the statements you agree with, and ensuring that you’re focused on the discussion will help you improve.
If your opponent discovers that you’re showing sincere interest in their viewpoints, they will likely return the same treatment. This will breed mutual respect and a healthier conversation.
Back up your views with facts
Opinions are simply that: opinions. And everybody has one. You should support it with verifiable evidence to stand out and draw attention and respect to your arguments.
It helps if you curtail emotional or personal experiences and stick to data. After all, data never lies.
Even if you’re spitting facts, people will be less inclined to agree or accept it if you’re not confident. Being confident means using assertive language and adopting confidence postures. However, it doesn’t mean you should become arrogant or, worse, become disrespectful.