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Uncivil Discourse

Turning an unproductive conversation productive

serious-african-american-colleagues-talking-discussing-project-together-workplaceI’ve witnessed some examples of uncivil discourse recently that have compelled me to do some deep thinking about the kinds of conversations we’re having. It may be the months of social distancing that have caused us to forget how to be kind. It may be the extended duration of stress and fear that has caused us to pay more attention to our own concerns than to look out for our neighbors. It may be that tough stuff has surfaced and some of us have never had a chance or reason to process things we’re just now becoming aware of. It may be that the processing effort is so taxing that there’s nothing left within ourselves to give to effective discourse. It may be that we are in a place of grief. It may be that I’ve just seen extreme examples and haven’t spent enough time in the hopeful dialogues that are taking place. 

 

Whatever the cause, I’m feeling compelled right now to share two specific instances that I’ve observed recently, and offer positive alternatives to the uncivil discourse to help our conversations become more compassionate and more productive. Perhaps as you read through these scenarios and the alternatives proposed, you’ll find tools you can use to make tough conversations better. 

 

business-man-having-difficult-video-callWe’ve written about “agreeing to disagree” in the past, and there are lots and lots of present-day and historical examples of people who didn’t agree or see eye-to-eye, but who were still able to engage in effective communications and positive relationships. It’s challenging (read: impossible) to build relationships and communicate effectively if someone isn’t feeling heard. We’ve got a lot of room to improve on our collective listening skills

 

 

Here are two scenarios with unproductive situations, along with a couple alternatives to turn the conversation into a productive one. 

Scenario 1:

Not productive: I’ll just say the thing I’m trying to say louder so that I drown you out. 

woman-yelling-man-through-megaphone (2)How it manifests itself in the workplace: Two people are engaged in a conversation and one doesn’t feel heard.They start talking louder and louder until their volume escalates to yelling. The next time the two are in a meeting together, one speaks louder and longer, preventing the other person from even getting a word in edgewise. 

How it manifests itself in the community: Two people post yard signs, each supporting their cause. The causes are different, so they keep putting larger and larger signs out. Just after dusk, one opts to remove the other’s signs, tear them up, and throw them away. 

Why it’s not productive – When someone is yelling, they aren’t listening. When we don’t listen, we miss out on truths, chances to grow, chances to learn, and things that may be brighter. When we shut down someone else’s voice, we are guilty of bullying. When we resort to tactics that harm others so that we can be heard, we are eroding the very fabric of what makes human relationships good. 

 

Productive: demonstrate emotional intelligence

Self Awareness  - ask "What am I contributing to this moment?"

Self Management - ask "How can I co-create a better solution?"

Other awareness  - ask "Who else is in this moment and what does the world look like from where they’re standing?"

Relationship Management - ask "How can I help us both move forward together productively?"

  • If I find myself in a conversation where I’m raising my voice to be heard, it’s my job to soften my tone. Continually raising the volume won’t help us have civil discourse. It’s up to me to co-create an environment where we can engage in dialogue. If I want someone else to listen to me, I have to be willing to listen to them.
  • I can ask myself “what is it that I feel is not being heard, and how else can I share that message civilly?” 
  • I can ask the other person, “I fear I’m not hearing something you want me to hear, can you share it a different way so that I can try to listen better?” 
  • I can ask a third party, “It feels like we’re not listening to each other, can you help us listen to both sides to see where we can find common ground.” 
  • I can hold myself to the norms we’ve agreed to (if we said no yelling at work, then I can stop yelling; if the law says it’s illegal for me to deface your property, then I can, at the bare minimum, hold myself to that standard). 

 

Scenario 2: 

Not productive: I’ll just stop the dialog and walk away 

mad-hr-representative-pointing-door-asking-candidate-leaveHow it manifests itself in the workplace: Two people are in a conversation when one person hears something they disagree with or don’t like and shuts down. They stop talking. They walk away from the conversation and don’t return to it. They may talk about the person they are in conflict with (and rarely in flattering terms), but they won’t actually engage with that person in conversation. They avoid them in meetings and in the hall, and they refuse to work with them on projects or assignments. 

How it manifests itself in the community: Two friends or family members express opposing viewpoints on their social media posts. Instead of commenting or engaging in conversation face to face, one “unfriends” the other and ghosts the person, cutting them out of conversations, dinners, get-togethers and more. 

Why it’s not productive – Differences of opinion do not have to mean destruction of relationships. Yes, there are times when separating oneself from a source of harm is absolutely the right thing to do, but in the instances that I cited here, there was no attempt at building on the foundation of friendship or love that was already present. There was no conversation, no dialog, simply a shut down. Without dialog, we cannot learn from each other. 

 

Productive: demonstrate emotional intelligence

Self Awareness  - ask "What am I contributing to this moment?"

Self Management - ask "How can I co-create a better solution?"

Other awareness  - ask "Who else is in this moment and what does the world look like from where they’re standing?"

Relationship Management - ask "How can I help us both move forward together productively?"

  • If I find myself disagreeing with what a friend or family member has posted, I need to pause and ask myself why I disagree. 
  • If they are sharing something about which I have no personal experience, then I need to take time to learn about their perspective and where they might be coming from. 
  • If they matter to me, I need to respectfully express my own perspective and ask them to help me see where they’re coming from. 
  • If we escalate in tone or words, then I need to give myself a pause or a break, and I need to share that’s what I’m doing (“I’m going to step away from the conversation for a bit to calm down, think things through, try to get my head around this, prevent us from saying things we’ll regret).” 
  • If after I’ve thought and calmed down, we still disagree, I need to remind myself what I do love about that person and why we care about each other, and see how we can hold on to that part of our relationship, despite our differences. 
  • If I can’t figure out a way for us to still be friends through this, I need to share my perspective so they have a chance to know where I’m coming from, and leave a door open should one of us change our minds. 

 

Friends, things aren’t going to get better if we can’t get better at the way we communicate with each other. I’ve seen lots of important conversations, conversations that need to be happening right now. Our future depends on these conversations. But if we can’t communicate with compassion, if we can’t learn to listen, how do we expect things to get better? Tap into your emotional intelligence, be a role model for civil discourse. Have those tough conversations. They need to start somewhere, sometime, so why not today, why not with you? 

Sinikka headshot 2017

About the Author

Sinikka Waugh

Sinikka Waugh is a recognized leader in understanding people and in adapting tools, techniques, and processes to meet the demands of the situation at hand. Since 2006, Sinikka has provided compassionate leadership in transformation initiatives. When she isn’t in front of a class, she enjoys putting her background in English and French Literature to work, by writing blogs about the subjects she teaches every day.


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