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Civility in the Time of a Pandemic

August 23, 2021

Two people look at the camera with masks on in an urban setting

Written by Tracy Allen, distinguished professor, Institute for Conflict Management

It appears most of us are growing more than weary of  masks, quarantines, social distancing, limitations on freedoms, anxiety over illness and vaccines, visibly seeing health care workers overwrought with stress, and the political fall outs that have emerged. To many, it all seems surreal. And yet, it is very real for all.

Regardless of your political persuasion or views on health safety, there is an emerging new topic of dinner conversation – the vaccine. Is it possible to have a discussion with someone holding a perspective different from yours without blowing up, disliking each other, unfriending one another, calling out names, raising voices and suffering defeat with exasperation? Believe it or not, you can.

In launching a program on civil discourse – "How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable", we have uncovered a few tips that might make your next difficult conversation less stressful and more satisfying. Thanks to Eric Galton’s idea, we have created a multi-step method for engaging in discourse where participants carry differing views.

First, the environment has to feel safe for all engaging. Not just physically safe, but publicly and emotionally safe. 

Begin with a little self-grounding and commitment to civility in your head and your heart. 

Recognize what you believe the goal of the discourse is to be. It may not be to win or persuade. Most often, it can be a discussion to share perspectives, without judgment. 

Make a firm commitment to actively listen for learning and understanding. Do not fall prey to listening in order to speak. Suspend judgment and disbelief. Consider being a perspective taker, not giver. Learn the skills of empathic listening. Remain curious. Think more like a scientist and less like a prosecutor, preacher or politician.

After actively listening, create and use open ended questions to dive deeper into the person’s basis or evidence for the perspective. Do not argue. Listen.  

Once the speaker’s perspective has been allowed to play out, try and reframe what you have just heard. Think about using terms that demonstrate you actually listened, capturing the person’s emotions and concerns, as well as the rationale.

For example, after hearing from a colleague who has not gotten vaccinated, you might reframe as follows: “So as you see it, you have concerns about the efficacy of the science behind the push to get vaccinated. You have real concerns about side effects not just for yourself but for your children. You have heard that the pharmaceutical companies short cut the research. You hear daily contradictions from what you used to believe were credible sources and frankly, you don’t know who to believe. Further, you think infringing on personal liberties is not the way to reduce the pandemic outbreak. You want and hope individuals can and will take personal responsibility for their own safety and you believe we can trust them to protect themselves and others. Do I have that right?”

And then – the big emphasis here is and, not but – politely, calmly offer to share another perspective with language you wish others to use with you. Passion without diplomacy is a hand grenade – the very thing you are trying to avoid. Offer the basis for your thinking and conclusions as well as the emotions that come with your perspective. 

For example: “Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I hadn’t considered some of them. And I happen to have a slightly different perspective and perhaps I can share that with you as you have candidly shared yours with me."

This is not a perfect recipe for dialogue but it’s a start with very little risk to the participants. At worst, you still have huge gaps in your areas of consensus and now you understand why and how that arises. Perhaps however, your relationship is still in tact and your blood pressure in check. Which thus allows your brain to change the subject, for now.

Learn more about the Institute for Conflict Management.

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