How to Maintain a
Civil Conversation

Friends in a Bar

“What did I do wrong?” wrote a former student who’d had an unfortunate encounter.  In the parking lot of a local bar, he noticed a young woman getting out of her car and made eye contact.  They were both heading inside the establishment and began to chat.

Once inside, he met up with a guy friend and they asked the woman to sit with them.  They all chatted comfortably on many subjects.  After quite a while, the woman mentioned a political candidate and one of the men said he actually liked him.  The woman suddenly became irate and “blew up” at both young men.  She then jumped topics immediately and accused them of being racist.  

My friend reported that nothing at all in the previous conversation would have led either of the men to believe this event could have even happened.  He asked how he might avoid finding himself in polarized conversations in the future.

Fortunately, there are etiquette rules of engagement that can help keep a civil conversation from going awry.

Aiming for Peaceful Interactions

Finding yourself in the company of someone who can't simply disagree and let go creates an uncomfortable situation.  Unfortunately, there are people who believe that others who don’t hold their particular political or religious/irreligious beliefs are not just misguided, but that they are also bad people.  (This is probably what happened in the bar conversation above.) 

Fearing these type situations creates a sense of dread when it comes to having conversations with friends, family members, or even strangers.  It's a proverbial roll of the dice whether someone will share your viewpoint, or how they might react upon discovering they do not share your viewpoint.

Being etiquette-ful implies that you are willing to soften the rough edges of conversation by "not going there with strong feelings."  Etiquette is aimed at peaceable interactions, even when there may be an underlying disagreement.

However, etiquette rules are engaged in the moment, at the margin, and only by individuals.  You have no control over what someone's opinion or reaction will be, but you do have control over your own words and reactions. 

An Open Mind Leads to Civil Conversation

Once a conversational explosion happens, it’s too late to do anything about it.  Practicing these five skills of civil conversation can help you be ready for, or help diffuse, a potential explosive situation.  

  1. Listen to understand.  Be able to summarize it back.  “So, help me clarify, are you saying…”  You are clarifying for yourself.  This differs from listening and summarizing to formulate a response or rebuttal. 
  2. Encourage yourself to be curious about what the other person is saying.  Curiosity carries no judgement and encourages an open mind.
  3. Use “I” statements when talking about your view on a particular subject.  Using “you” statements can come across as blaming.  "But you just said . . ." or "You seriously believe that . . ."
  4. Look for common ground in any conversation.  Seek it out.  Having conversation starters in mind before you engage prevents bringing up topics that might trigger negativity.  “John, I hear that you really love this country.  I’m like you.  I appreciate living here so much.”
  5. Back off when needed.  Etiquette asks that we employ pause -- short or otherwise.  It may be that you find yourself trapped with nowhere to go on a subject the other person is reactive about. “Cory, I see your point and feel your concern.  I also know we differ a lot on this subject.  Should we stop our conversation about it and move on to another topic?”

The ultimate goal of employing these rules of engagement is to maintain a civil conversation.  Aiming for civility in your life is an excellent reason to approach interactions with others in a respectful and courteous manner.  

This does not imply that you must always agree with the people you interact with.  But it does mean that you can agree to disagree and still like and respect another person.

It also means that you can encourage civility by being a living example of it.  When you can find common ground, show understanding, and be authentic enough to stand your ground as you change the subject, you will automatically earn the respect of others who wish to follow your example.

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