A new national survey released last fall by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Brookings Institution shows political-based conflict is on the rise with another election season fast approaching.
People and groups with differing political views struggle to have respectful conversations.
Dr. Christopher Lynch, Missouri State University political science professor and head of the political science and philosophy department, together with Dr. LeAnn Brazeal, associate professor of communication, explain why it’s important to maintain civility in political conversations and how to achieve it.
Civility is a form of politeness communicators should practice.
According to Brazeal, civility is “an expectation that participants will be reasonable, courteous and respectful even if they disagree on certain issues.”
Lynch notes the goal of civil conversations is to genuinely understand another position different from ours.
Brazeal adds the goal of conversations should not be to win, but to understand.
“Genuine listening helps us understand and see where our interests intersect,” she said.
Lynch explains understanding a belief is not the same as subscribing to it. It is reflected in the ability to repeat the other person’s position in a non-prejudicial language.
Additionally, civil conversations do not aim to provoke confrontations. According to Lynch, “when we practice civility, each interlocutor feels heard and understood.”
“One of the most striking results in our research is that civil participants were likelier to stay focused and bring varied ideas to the conversation,” said Brazeal, who has conducted research on the effects of civility in conversations. “The conversation is not only kinder, but better.”
Barriers to civil conversations
Having a civil political conversation is sometimes difficult. Brazeal identifies common barriers to civility in political conversations.
“It’s hard for people to find common ground or to even be inspired to look for it,” Brazeal said. “There’s such polarization and mistrust these days that it’s hard to bring people together. Social media feeds off it and many political leaders encourage and exploit this.”
Another barrier is we live in a world where short, hot takes are common.
“Issues aren’t always black and white as some people believe,” Brazeal said. “Nuances are revealed when people talk in-depth about their experiences.”
Brazeal notes some recent studies have shown that many Americans view their political party the same way they view their favorite sports team.
“This means people will support their team regardless of the issue,” she said. “When we get tied to this kind of political identity, the other ‘team’ becomes the enemy and some politicians exploit that too.”
Moreover, negative emotions affect our ability to listen to others with an open mind.
“If we see them as our enemies, we’ll be unable to rationally process what they’re saying,” she added.
Actualizing civil discussions
Engaging in a civil discussion begins with setting ground rules and expectations.
It is also important to approach conversations with an open mind. This happens by cultivating empathy, practicing active listening and using reflective questioning.
Reflective questioning helps participants elaborate, clarify or give examples about their opinions.
Lynch explains participants should avoid throwing negative comments at one another.
“Positions, not personalities, are up for debate,” he said.
He adds having a moderator in political conversations helps the conversation flow. In informal settings, a moderator is a person who stays neutral and ensures both parties speak and listen.
According to Brazeal, acknowledging our biases is another important step.
“We all have biases based on our upbringing, experiences and cultures,” Brazeal said. “Hearing other people’s experiences, rather than arguing, helps us understand where our views can be unknowingly biased.”
When we find ourselves in political discussions, civility should be at the forefront of our minds. This does not mean we give up our views, but that we learn to work in good faith with others.
“When we practice civility, we learn to compromise,” Brazeal said.