Civil Conversations

I recently had some frustrating political conversations with a friend, and decided that what was needed was to establish ground rules for the conversation. The rules were simple. First, one of us could posit a thesis or make a statement that we thought was true. If there was disagreement about facts, we could try to establish the facts. Once the facts were established and agreed upon, we could each set forth our opinions and each would have to respect the opinion of the other. This process worked so well, that our conversations became quick and to the point and our frustrations abated.

Separating out fact and opinion is often the remedy for a conflict. In a mediation, one party may establish facts that the person believes leads to a certain conclusion.  However, very often the facts are not in dispute, but the conclusion that is drawn is just one of many. So, for example, in a divorce, it may be clear that the budget does not support all the expenditures. But the solution of one party on how to cut the budget is that person’s opinion and can be debated.

We sometimes talk about the “position” of a party. But another name for it is an “opinion”. The position the party has come up with is an opinion on how to resolve the dilemma.

In heated debate in political conversations, in family discussions, in business or non-profit organizations, fact and opinion are often conflated. When they are teased apart, the way forward is much clearer. Once the parties agree on the facts and agree that each person’s opinion must be respected, the discussion becomes quieter and more thoughtful as each person tries to understand why the other person holds the opinion they hold and whether there are any areas of agreement that underlie the different opinions.

The challenge is to keep the civil discourse on this level at all times so as to avoid frustrating and heated arguments that confuse fact and opinion. This seems to be a difficult task. Compounding the task is that individuals in their personal lives are not always open to hearing reminders about ground rules, or don’t feel that ground rules should be necessary in a personal conversation. Even among my mediator friends, it is difficult to keep conversation on this level. My personal solution is to try not to be a stickler. If a particular conversation is not important to me, I let it go even if I felt hurt that my particular opinions were discarded as “wrong”. However, when a conversation is important or when it is repeated over and over again in a particular relationship, it is time to explain the frustration (without assigning blame) and suggest ground rules. Hopefully, among reasonable people, these will be respected and observed.

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