Much has been made of the increased polarization in contemporary American society, with recent data indicating 90 percent of Americans are in agreement that the country is divided, and 60 percent are pessimistic that these divisions will ever be healed enough to allow real progress on the most pressing issues. At the highest levels and in great volume, the “pro-“ and “anti-“ camps on seemingly every crucial topic are drifting further apart, the gulfs widening and the bridges in between stretched to their limits before finally crumbling into the expanding gap.
The kind of prose often used to describe our at-odds society can feel hyperbolic. But this isn’t because the stakes aren’t high — they certainly are. It’s because, usually, the dynamics are being applied to all of society at once: movements, parties, positions, -isms — not individuals. And this simple fact makes reconciliation an overwhelming proposition, makes the idea of bridging any gap daunting to the point of paralysis.
But here’s the thing: In an increasingly polarized America, it’s easy to forget that the big breaks are the result of millions of micro-fractures, the bonds of close relationships crumbled by an inability to understand one another — or at least an attempt to. To put it bluntly, it’s easy to “unfriend.” But it’s the hard work of engagement — of civil discourse, of healthy debate — that can help tug the two rims of a canyon back together.
Yes, there are some relationships that can’t be salvaged, some other parties that simply can’t or won’t be engaged — or individuals in deep waters you simply have no interest in reeling back in. So it goes. Toss a prayer to St. Jude and move on. But as for the favorite cousin who somehow voted for Problematic Candidate X, or the childhood bestie who posted an article about Bonkers Theory Y— how do you engage without attacking? How do you try to understand without offending?
Here are some tips for civil discourse, healthy argumentation, or whatever you want to call this form of verbal olive-branching.
Human beings are fascinating. A person’s belief in something, even a deeply held one, is not a featureless boulder, uniform and standard-issue to its core. It’s more like the web of AV cables you find behind an entertainment center in a chaotic household: a tangle of wires going every which way, some even unplugged or dormant. In a word: complicated. Each of us a complex bundle of nature and nurture and memory and trauma and stimuli. Approach any conversation with the empathy that that reality demands.
Actively listen for the values (or motivations) beneath the position
Where “classical debate” is concerned, we’re trained to listen for the holes or cracks in our opponent’s argument. For our purposes here, though, you’re actively listening to understand, not to rebut. Don’t get hung up on the details about the position you’re opposing and that your conversation partner is defending. Instead, focus in on the values that inform the stance. Often, “questionable” positions mutate from fear or pain or anger or pride — things we all feel — or out of the desire to protect the same things we all hold dear: family, freedom, health. Actively listening for the values at the root of a position is where we’re most likely to find common ground.
This goes without saying, of course. In fact, maybe do this all the time! But for the sake of our topic here, this means no name-calling, belittling language, or other kinds of unconstructive ad-hominem attacks. The best way to get someone to not hear you is to insult them — works every time! Instead, try a compliment or two. As the saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Other conversation kindnesses you can extend are avoiding interrupting or talking over the other person. Two people talking over one another is like the two opposing hot and cold air currents that collide to form a tornado. Tornados, of course, are not especially constructive.
Be conscious of your language
We talked above about language that’s overtly belittling or otherwise unkind, but other sorts of words and phrases can undermine a healthy argument, as well. These include:
- Stereotypes or stock phrases that come with a boatload of baggage, such as “tree-hugger” or “flyover states.” Just because these terms are ubiquitous doesn’t mean they’re not charged with unhelpful connotations.
- Binary language or thinking that reinforces division rather than exploring the gray area in-between. As author and Fordham ethics professor Charles Camosy explains, “The issues that are seriously debated in our public sphere are almost always too complex to fit into simplistic categories like liberal/conservative, religious/secular, open/close-minded.”
Be hyper-aware of yourself and your own position
Self-analyze before, during, and after your discussion to promote a healthy argument. Some things to consider:
- Your own role in the conflict, disagreement, or polarization. Approach the conversation with a healthy dose of humility. You’re not perfect. You might even be wrong. Are you actually open to being swayed or to genuinely hearing the other point of view?
- Your own feelings and triggers. As the Anti-Defamation League suggests in their helpful guide to respectful conversations, “Sometimes we get emotionally triggered by a particular person, style of communication, or a particular topic for which we feel strongly. We can’t always think logically when we are in that state of mind, so it’s helpful to identify your triggers ahead of time.” Doing so will help you separate the emotions you’re feeling during a conversation from the actual content of the conversation. Having this knowledge going in helps you listen more effectively.
Focus on the ‘us’
The sad truth is that one style of governing is pitting groups against each another by convincing them they’re in a zero-sum game, a battle in which any gain on one side is in direct proportion to the losses on the other. We’re coerced into perceiving the person on the other side of the polar divide as our enemy. You can reject this premise by approaching a difficult conversation from an “us” perspective (how can we both win?), rather than a “you” and “me,” one winner v. one loser perspective. It’s the “rising tide lifts all ships” point of view. And this perspective immediately makes your conversation a collaborative activity, rather than an exercise in scorekeeping.
If necessary, agree to disagree
This outcome has value as a civil semi-resolution during a difficult chat, sure. But it has even more value for another reason. If you head into an argument knowing “agreeing to disagree” is a viable option, you set yourself up for constructive, civil conversation. If the only options are “winner” and “loser,” the focus is on being one and not the other. But if “draw” is also an option? Then a respectful search for common ground is much more likely from the start.
Practice healthy arguing in lower-stakes environments
With these tips in your pocket, you might be itching to call your uncle and ask about that protest he was spotted at, or explore the motivations behind your aunt’s cringy bumper stickers. Then again, like many people, you might be petrified to broach a controversial topic with anybody, even those who love you most. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to start slow and practice these skills in a lower-stakes environment. You might have a conversation with a friend about something they love but that you hate, such as mushrooms or horror movies or Coldplay. Or maybe there’s a small issue in your household you’re ready to address, like someone constantly borrowing without asking or disrespecting your personal space. All of these are opportunities to dig in, actively listen, confront with kindness, focus on the “us,” and to practice most if not all of the other points above, as well.
Turn on any news channel, and either directly or indirectly you’ll be told we’re more divided than ever. Maybe the pundits are right. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start to dismantle any one of those walls, brick by brick, one healthy argument at a time.