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How to Have a Civil Conversation

“Our culture has accepted two huge lies: The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.” — Rick Warren

Not too many days from now, billions of people around the world will gather with their families to celebrate the holidays. Even in the most ordinary of years, these gatherings can be stressful. In most families, not every member sees the world in the same way. Not everyone agrees on what’s to be done about the common challenges we face. Not everyone likes the leaders we’ve had or have now, or the decisions they’ve made, or plan to make.

In a year like the one we’ve just experienced, these tensions of difference are running particularly high for just about all of us. You’ve probably already wondered just how volatile things might get around the holiday table this year. Even in the calmest of families, the likelihood that somebody will say something that sets somebody else off are considerably higher than they may have been in previous years.

If this past election cycle has shown us anything, it’s that we need a better way of talking with each other. Attacking, judging, shaming, yelling, condescending, hating, breaking off relationship…these approaches may feel justified in the moment, but they’re very unlikely to produce any sort of lasting solution that honors us all.

Thankfully, there is an alternative approach. It’s called “Civil Conversation,” and it’s a skilled way of talking and listening that every one of us needs to learn for the sake of the common challenges we share and must find a way to resolve together.

The good folks at (one of my favorite podcasts, you should check them out!) have created a thoughtful guidebook for how to host a Civil Conversation. The guide is totally free; you can download it here. Though they’ve set it up as a gathering for friends and colleagues, the same principles apply equally well to family gatherings. Here’s a condensed overview of the approach:

1. Create a space for conversation that’s open and inviting. For example, rather than around the dinner table, it might be best to have these conversations in the living room, where it’s more open and relaxed.

2. Help your family create a common intention (or desired outcome) for any conversation you have. It’s unlikely any opinions will be changed, so it’s best not to make that the goal. Rather, encourage family members to set an intention like “to understand each other better,” or “to find the common ground” on any particular topic of interest. (For more on why this is a much better outcome to aim for, check out my previous post here.)

3. Enlist each family member to agree to a few ground rules. For example, to Listen Generously, to Be Humble (or Teachable), to be Kind, and to practice Open-Hearted Curiosity. The Conversation Guide offers some other great ideas for “Grounding Virtues” or agreements you can all agree to ahead of time. Be sure to read through it.

4. Set a time limit. Don’t spend more than an hour or so on a difficult topic, and when it’s done, allow plenty of time for recovery, and just to have fun with each other.

As uncomfortable as these exchanges might feel at first, practicing these skills at home may well be the key to finding common ground with our fellow citizens on a larger scale. If we can learn to bring compassion and a willingness to understand into our conversations with those we love most, we can certainly learn to do the same with the neighbor down the street, the colleague at work, and the friend on Facebook you’re tempted to label as “evil.”

“You have got to approach differences with this notion that there is good in the other. That’s it. And if we can’t figure out how to do that ~ if there isn’t the crack in the middle where there’s some people on both sides who absolutely refuse to see the other as evil, this is going to continue.” — Frances Kissling

Download the Civil Conversation Guide HERE.

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