Can we all just get along…

By: Dr. Stacey Pearson-Wharton

“Can we all just get along?” Those words were spoken by Rodney King during a very turbulent time in our country and a great divide. At that time folks were divided; there were riots in the streets and looting in Los Angeles as a result of a non-guilty verdict for police officers whose barbaric beating of Mr. King was recorded on video. While this incident happened in 1991, we once again are in turbulent times as a country. That is, the level of divisiveness, hostility, and a political entrenchment seems to be at a peak again. If you look at the highly-charged debates on television and the antagonism between those with privileged identities and those with marginalized identities, in public, the rumbles on social media between friends and loved ones. The current generation of young people with marginalized identities feels the weight of it like never before from the barrage of microaggressions and the increase in bias incidents on our campuses, law enforcement being summoned to a bbq or lemonade stand, murders in our worship centers or in our homes, and the barge of uncivility on Twitter.

Recently, a friend shared with me that her mother put out an edict to her and her siblings who are on opposite sides of the political spectrum that any conversation about politics is forbidden at any family gathering until further notice. I have also heard of other opposite-stance stories where people have unfriended Facebook friends or even distanced themselves from intimates because they are not able to mend fences or talk about disagreements of fundamental world issues. As I have watched this deep divide take hold of our country, I have asked that myself the same question that Rodney King posited many years ago: Can we all just get along? I believe the answer is a resounding yes and a significant part of the solution is Civil Discourse. That is, engaging in dialogue that is intended to not win a debate or prove the person wrong but to enhance understanding and exhibit civility to those who may not agree with you. Below are a few tips to help you to have meaningful deliberative dialogue.

1. Begin with the end in mind.
That is before the conversation begins, it is important to be clear about your end goals. The best way to engage in civil discourse is to genuinely seek to understand those who oppose you, thereby increasing intimacy and trust in a relationship, or ensuring that the relationship remains intact. After the conversation has ended, then it is important to conduct one’s self in a way that affirms your newfound understanding. One of the things I try to keep in mind for myself is that I always want to be true to my own values and one of those values is to treat others with dignity and respect. As a result, even when I am involved in a difficult conversation, I try to live my values even when the other person is being disrespectful or speaking the most off-the-wall things. Now, do I occasionally get angry and upset? Yes. Or do I raise my voice at times? Yes. But when my end-goal is to keep the relationship intact, I act in ways to protect the relationship.

2. Avoid name calling, hyperbole, and absolutes in the conversation.
Calling someone “horseface” or “nasty woman,” or the accusation, “You always do this,” or referring to an entire group of people as “criminals” or “racist,” is not likely to move the dialogue along and certainly doesn’t promote understanding. While it appears that I am stating the obvious, these kinds of verbal mud-slinging will certainly interrupt any dialogue or understanding and will cause the other party to become defensive, shut down, and become more deeply entrenched in their way of thinking. Be sure to use collaborative language that indicates that what you are saying is your own opinion and no one else’s (#ihmo), recognizing that you could be wrong and you are willing to consider the other person’s side.

3. Don’t try to label a person’s mindset.
Oftentimes, when we have a strong disagreement with someone with whom we are engaging in discourse and our feelings are hurt, we may tend to pathologize the mindset of the other party or objectify the person we see as the offender. When seeking to engage in fruitful dialogue it is important to not forget the humanity of the person with whom you are engaging. At times, when we experience dissonance with a person’s ideas, opinions, or worldviews, we confabulate the person and their ideas. I encourage you to do what you can to separate the other party’s divergent worldview (that may seem outrageous to you) from the individual.

4. Choose your discourse partners thoughtfully.
My husband has a saying: “A person convinced against their will is of the same opinion still.” That is, try to engage in dialogue with others that are interested, invested, and open to understanding as well. This kind of work takes physical and emotional energy; be sure to only use that judicious energy with someone that it is willing to engage in a civil dialogue as well. There are some conversations with particular individuals that might not be worth the effort, and an attempt at civil discourse with them can be so toxic and disrespectful that engaging with them is a poor use of your time and energy. This is especially true for people who are passive-aggressive, denigrate you or your point of view, or speak to you in a disrespecting tone.

5. Engage in Radical Listening.
That is, listen to understand and try to find commonalities with the person. Use curiosity to help facilitate dialogue and understanding. Asking thoughtful questions to help clarify the issues raised will affirm that you are making an effort to understand the other person’s viewpoint or thought process. For example, in a discourse about who is the greatest singer of all time, you might ask, “So are you saying that you believe that Prince is the greatest singer of all time because of the catalog he left behind?” This lets the other party know that you are listening and trying to make sure that you understand exactly what they are saying.

This is not an exhaustive list of how to manage difficult dialogues or civil discourse, but these tips offer ways to open the door to future meaningful conversation. It is important to keep in mind that it is unlikely that everything will be resolved in one fruitful dialogue. It might take a series of conversations to get to the goodness around serious disagreements. Although it can be difficult, I believe that anything that brings folks closer together is worth it. Don’t be discouraged and let’s keep talking. I still believe we can all get along.