Free Speech & Peace

How to Have a Civil Conversation

Jay Heinrichs, professor of rhetoric at Middlebury College, explains how everyone can have a civil conversation, even when they disagree with one another.

October 1, 2017

Is it even possible these days to hold a civil conversation? Of course it is—provided you avoid religion and politics, stay off Facebook and Twitter, and throw your television out the window. Given that Americans spend an average of ten hours a day staring at screens, and that almost everything we talk about, including the weather, brings up anxious discussions of God and Washington, we need to find ways to disagree without wanting to murder our deluded opponents.

Not that a civil conversation has to be all “Well phrased, Sir!” and “Very well put, Madam!” Look at the nation’s Founders; they indulged in more than their share of nastiness. (Have you seen “Hamilton”?) But our forebears knew a thing or two about speaking when they broke bread. They recognized a civil conversation…

  • is anger-free, at least outwardly.
  • airs disparate views, making it an educational event for both sides.
  • seeks to discover common values.
  • looks to make an agreed-upon choice when it comes to politics. A consensus.

All of these admirable traits might have vanished the moment our forebears left the pub and went back to their printing presses. But the conversation itself had intrinsic value. It let people understand each other.

What’s more, the Founders understood that their argument employed a key liberal art: rhetoric, the art of persuasion. Every one of them, from Ben Franklin to John Adams, had received an education in rhetoric.  The skills these men employed in polite conversation, and the insights they picked up from one another, helped inform the Founding itself. With a precedent like that, who needs snappy tweets?

Let’s look at what they knew, and combine it with a couple of techniques I’ve learned in coaching conversations.

In this era of talk radio and cable shout fests, it’s easy to think that the person doing the yelling has all the power. This may be true if you want to gain Nielsen ratings; but in a two-way conversation, the listener has the upper hand. That’s because the listener is the audience; and as every marketer will tell you, the audience is almighty. The very word comes from a royal invitation. A kingly listen is a powerful thing. And while everyone recalls Queen Victoria braying, “We are not amused,” who can retell the joke that failed to amuse her?

To gain royal chops in your own conversations, try to avoid being the loudmouth in the room. Instead, play the role of the smiling, skeptical audience. Say, “I’m listening.” Instead of rebutting, keep asking for more, in particular:

Definitions. “Just who is the ‘they’ you speak of?’ “What do you mean by ‘freedom,’ exactly?” “You talk about social justice. Can you tell me exactly what that is?” You’ll often find that extremists on both sides have their magic words and handy cliches that make their little hearts beat faster. Community. Rule of law. Aliens. Level playing field. Diversity. Forcing an arguer to define these terms can often bring an element of thought into a conversation.

Data and trends. “How many?” “Is that number growing or shrinking?” Nothing deflates an exaggerated stance like an insistence on verifiable numbers and objective facts.

Sources. The most extreme-averse facts are ones with genuine sources, checked by professionals; or peer-reviewed studies, especially those confirmed by later studies. Or government statistics.

Oh, wait. Many people these days don’t trust those sources. But I’ve found in conducting numerous workshops that just getting a person to recite them can moderate an opinion. Asking for definitions, facts, and sources can move the opinion meter a bit more in your direction, without your even offering your own points.

But does that mean sitting like some mute milquetoast? Not at all. Just know what to be negative about.

Play the role of a coach who really wants the arguer to succeed. You just might be persuaded, you imply, if only he can get his game up. “I love your passion, Uncle Bob. But do you have any facts that don’t come from Breitbart? I find it hard telling the difference between them and Pravda.”

Or: “That would make a great meme. You definitely should post it to your friends. But you need to tell me why—given what you know about me—I should vote for your candidate.”

Do those examples sound a bit snarky? Fine. Civil debate does not have to be bland. Just prepare to smile and back off if the anger builds. After all, what’s your point: to prove the other guy is a jerk, or accomplish something more noble?

When things start heating up, think: What do you want to get out of this conversation? If it’s someone you care about—or someone related to someone you care about—then maybe your best goal is a good relationship. Pretend you enjoy the jerk’s company. Send love beams out of your eyes. Try really hard not to seem offended, even if Uncle Harold is borderline racist or he insists on saying “Happy Holidays” to evangelicals. Being easily offended ruins relationships just as readily as acting offensive.

Eventually, though, you may actually want to make your case, if only to sway the more reasonable people around the table.

The philosopher Aristotle, who literally wrote the book on rhetoric, said that disagreements about the future constitute “deliberative” rhetoric. Arguments about the past have to do with crime or sin. Present-tense arguments cover what’s good or bad, and who’s in or out of your tribe of believers. Future-tense, deliberative argument deals with choices—about solving problems together.

“Okay, so you don’t like Trump/Hillary/anybody in politics. Let’s talk instead about how we’re going to make this country healthier.”

A key tool of persuasion, concession, uses an opponent’s words to your own advantage. Concession can mean snappy answers. (Old ancient Roman in the Forum debating a young opponent: “What are you barking at, pup?” Youth: “I see a thief.”)

But the most civil kind of concession constitutes more improv than comeback. Don’t appear to disagree. Nod your head and “add” to the conversation, gradually steering it in your direction. Improv comedians call this the “Yes, and…” technique.

My wife is a master at this. For our anniversary this year, I decided to talk her into an eco-resort in Nicaragua. “Think of the flowers,” I said.

“Yes, and you know how much I love gardens.”

Gardens? I was thinking jungle. Still, I persisted. “And the wildlife.”

“Uh-huh. We do love animals, don’t we?”

“And hiking.”

“Right! Long walks would be perfect.” She deftly reframed every selling point without seeming to argue at all. Guess where we ended up? The chilly Cotswolds in England. Miles of walking through sheep meadows. She loved it. And we’re still married.

Jay Heinrichs is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion. A content and persuasion consultant for Southwest Airlines, NASA, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others, he is a Professor of the Practice of Rhetoric and Oratory at Middlebury College.