‘Tis a gift to be civil

The awful moment in Tucson a week ago has spawned a national conversation about … the national conversation.


A rough consensus has emerged that our ways of talking about issues have become too nasty.

You hear lots of hand-wringing and blaming. But you hear scant insight into what a more useful, civil dialogue might look like – or how to create one.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

This could be because most of the people talking – politicians and media types – don’t have a clue. They are the culprits in our degenerating discourse, not the cures.

 As it happens, over 15 years, I’ve had a hand in leading hundreds of civic dialogues on issues, involving thousands of people in Philadelphia and around the country.

 I’ve been part of memorable disasters and real successes. I’ve learned from both. I’ve seen civic forums produce not just civil conversations, but real results, from visions for a riverfront that attracted investment to principles for school construction that changed lives for students and teachers.

 Here are some tips for robust, useful discussion I’ve picked up along the way:

 1)   The goal is not to squelch or resolve disagreement, but to explore it. The goal is not to muffle passion, but to channel it.   You can do this if you seek discussion, not debate. Don’t mimic the I-win-you-lose setups of the courtroom or the election debate. Remind people that, if they leave having learned something they didn’t know when they walked in, they’ve won.

 2)   Set ground rules, to which all must agree.  It helps, but isn’t essential, to have a trained, neutral moderator to guide the talk.  The key ground rule is: Listen. Listen. Listen to understand what others try to say; don’t just listen for an opening to pounce and rebut.

 3)   Trade stories, not talking points.   Talk about the experiences and values that undergird your views, rather than just arguing for those views. You may find surprising common ground with people whom you’ve been conditioned to view as hostile, alien beings.

 4)   Search for shared identities that unite, instead of harping on identities that divide. Avoid this toxic phrase: “You’re just saying that because you’re ..” Whatever glib label gets used to fill in that blank – whether it’s “tax-and-spend liberal,” “right-wing gun nut,” or “wimpy moderate” – it closes minds and shuts down conversations.

 5)   Sit in a circle. I mean this literally. Setting and set-up matter. The less a conversation apes the staging and rituals of a courtroom, a debate or a cable talk show, the better its chance of producing useful talk. Privilege no one by putting them up on a stage with a personal mic in front of them; invite all to join the circle, sitting face to face on an even plane.

Contrary to the old cliché, kids, I do urge you to try this all at home, or nearby. The new conversation will be built from the ground up, not the top down.

Most of the work I’ve done on civic dialogue since 1996 was done with my colleague from the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Harris Sokoloff.  In 2006, we together founded the Penn Project for Civic Engagement. To look at reports and outcomes on some of the projects we’ve done together, look here or here.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal