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A More Civil Discourse

6 Phrases for Kinder, More Productive Conversations

It’s no secret that civil discourse in our modern American society is, at best, eroded.

Based on the news reports as recently as late July 2019, civil discourse is not modeled at even the highest offices of our land.

Profanity, name-calling, mudslinging, blame-laying, and finger-pointing are all prevalent throughout our businesses, our governments (city, county, state, national) and our society.

Far too many people have the mistaken impression that if we do not agree on something, then we are somehow excused from treating each other civilly. As a society, we seem to have come to the conclusion since we don’t agree on a given topic, we must be rivals, enemies, and unable to maintain a civil discourse.

Fundamentally, I believe there are many cases in which we can agree to disagree. We do not have to see eye to eye, even on big topics, to continue to value each other and listen with compassion, understanding, and grace.

But how do we do that? How do we maintain civil discourse in the face of hostility, foundational disagreement, and a heated exchange of ideas?

We have talked in the past about unconditional positive regard (UPR). While maintaining UPR is vital to maintaining composure and grace, this set of thoughts is specifically focused on words and phrases we can use to help foster civil discourse.


“Thank you.”

These first two words are so powerful for helping fix civil discourse.businessman-businesswoman-discussing-work-office-desk

  • Thank you for caring about our connection enough that you would take the time to be transparent or honest with me.
  • Thank you for the many things that you have done for our friendship or our relationship in the past, or to serve the common good for which we both work right now.
  • Thank you for giving me an opportunity to share my words, and for taking the time to share yours.

These words, “thank you”, coming from a genuine place of gratitude can adjust the sails of the conversation. They help us understand that we are grateful for the other human. They help us realize the other person has contributed something to the moment or the conversation and we are all the better because of it. It’s hard to be hostile at someone when you are grateful.


“I’m curious. Help me understand.”

These phrases, these words, are designed to remind ourselves, as well as the listener, that we are genuinely seeking to understand more than we are seeking to be understood.

  • I’m curious
  • Help me understand
  • I’m confused
  • I don’t get it
  • Can you help me?

Phrases like these convey to us and to our listener that we are genuinely trying to hear what they have to say.

Too often we respond with a combative, ‘Are you kidding me? Are you saying that…’ (and then we restate their words in our own confused angle). Instead, what if we use a softer tone and a genuine question asking to help understand.


“I agree with you that…”

businesswomen-restaurantThis one is a wonderful game changer in a moment of disagreement because it helps us remember that there is probably some common ground that we can stand on.

Maybe we’re not ready to say ‘I agree with you wholly and completely’ because perhaps the other person has said something that we don’t agree with. But if we can seek-out and restate the pieces we do agree on, a topic we both believe is important, common ground we can both agree to, a shared perspective that can help us stop butting heads and instead walk side by side, the simple phrase “I agree with you that…” can help diffuse tense situations.


“I value you”

Admittedly, these words aren’t always in our daily vocabulary and they can feel a bit weird to say. They might take some practice, but they can work wonders in helping us find civility in our conversations.

  • I love you
  • I appreciate you
  • I delight in working with you
  • I value you as a human
  • I value your contributions to our community or to our society
  • I value your input and your perspective and the things you do to serve that third party

These words serve as a reminder to ourselves and our listener that the disagreement does not define our relationship or the worth we have as humans. You are not less of a person because we see things differently.

We all have our own shortcomings. We all have our own strengths. We all have our own blind spots. And mine do not make me any lesser or better of a person than you.


“May I ask? May I share? May I...”


This last one is a turn of phrase that helps us create civil discourse because it asks permission to share a different perspective or ask a clarifying question.

This phrase might sound like the popular phrase “May I be honest?’, which implies I have been lying until now or simply gives me an excuse to (rudely) share criticism, under the guise of honestly. Instead, the words we are offering here allow us to ask for permission, which might allow us to move forward in the conversation.

The act of asking permission before plowing through, allows the listener to regain control of their own emotions so that they can be prepared to listen. It also allows us, as the speaker, to remember that we are not coming from a position of authority, we are coming from a position of equality.


One Last Thought.

These are a handful of phrases that we recommend to help create moments of civil discourse. By extension, we humbly ask that we all refrain from name-calling, finger-pointing, blame-laying, the use of words like always and never, and the other shenanigans that appear to be so very frequent in Washington (and elsewhere) these days.

This civil discourse works in face-to-face conversations, as well as in written exchanges. Too often, especially in the space of social media, we hide behind the written word or the perceived anonymity of the interwebs. We write things that we would never imagine saying to someone’s face and that, frankly, we would be ashamed to have our grandmothers read. If we are committed to a more civil discourse, let us carry that commitment with us, to all platforms and interfaces.

Perhaps as we reconsider civil discourse as an approach, we can find it in ourselves to treat each other even better than we have been so far.


Topics: Sinikka Waugh, Business Skills & Business Acumen, Communication & Collaboration

Sinikka Waugh

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. Are you ready? If you are, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us! contactus@yourclearnextstep.com


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