How To Have Civil and Humane Discussions On Difficult Topics



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   11-16,3-18

ABSTRACT:  Non-conflictful methods for helping people with different views understand each others’ viewpoints are described.

KEY WORDS:  gridlock, politics, empathy 

American society has become increasingly polarized politically over the last thirty or so years.  This has resulted in Congressional gridlock and increased animosity among citizens, who have tended to group together by values or viewpoints and to look at those with other values and viewpoints as wrong-headed, stupid, or even evil.  The internet has augmented this siloing by giving people more opportunities to group with those who are similar to themselves and who support their viewpoints (including their prejudices).  This sense of large group agreement makes people believe that everyone should think and feel the same way they do. 

As explained by Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Righteous Mind,” liberals in our society tend to value change (progress) and autonomy, while conservatives tend to value tradition, order, hierarchy, and sacredness.  These are all human value possibilities and by themselves are not evil or destructive. 

Public liberals and policy wonks have tended more and more to be a group of well educated and relatively rich citizens, and they have abandoned their alliance with union workers.  Unfortunately liberals have seen themselves as right and have acted righteously, degrading those of the other side as ignorant and primitive.  Lower class conservatives (Mr. Trump’s populists) resent this devaluing and view liberals as godless snobs who know nothing about real life.

Unfortunately liberals have focused entirely in recent years on acceptance of marginalized groups (Blacks, LGBTQ persons), which goes against conservatives’ values of loyalty and tradition, which would support slow change and the tendency to be loyal to those one is already close to.  It is crucial for Americans on both sides to accept that the other is fully human and simply has chosen different values, and it is crucial for all to accept that neither side is fully “right” and that as a country we must all accept the necessity for policy compromises.  It should be clear by now that neither side is ever going to “win” and thereby dominate and subjugate the other.  Deciding on policies that “give” something to both sides is our only way forward.

An appropriate goal for all human interactions, including policy/political interactions, is to have “good,” “positive” interactions—interactions in which both parties feel comfortable and safe (as a result of understanding each other and feeling treated appropriately by the other person) and in which the interaction enhances the welfare of both parties.  These interactions succeed through understanding and cooperation and result in minimum amounts of conflict and violence between people.  We can move toward this goal if we make a habit of thinking of every policy decision as an opportunity to make it a “win-win-win,” for every major side.  This essay describes how political discussions can be civil and humane if we (1) focus on understanding why the other person has the views and feelings that he has and (2) learn to make and value effective compromises.

Our society is badly in need of efforts to promote understanding and tolerance among all citizens.  The following steps are necessary in order to be able to listen to and accept others. 

These steps can be applied in any relationship, including couples, families, and groups that have the aim of bringing divergent people together for purposes of understanding.

1. One must first not be afraid of the other person or group.  Since news outlets show things that grab and hold viewers’/listeners’ attention every day, they show us mostly conflicts and tragedies, and seeing these day after day, week after week, makes human beings conclude that it is a much more dangerous world out there than is actually the case.  (Human beings construct their worlds out of what they observe and experience, so if they see only violence, they conclude that the whole world is violent.)  Having good data about the dangers they are concerned about (such as the chance of experiencing violence of any sort in any given day; the percentage of Whites and Blacks who are violent in any one year; etc.) helps people who can trust that data to moderate their fears.  Exposure to members of groups we fear who do not seem dangerous to us when we actually see them is also a great help.  The more we can identify with others, the less fear we have of them.

Examine your fears carefully to see if you have a trustworthy basis for them.  Try to remove irrelevant personal experiences and stories of others from your fear, and take a deep look at those you fear.  Do not overgeneralize.  Only a small portion of African-Americans are criminals, and by far the majority of criminals are white.

2. One must not believe that the other person or group is evil.  This may be difficult if one’s religious group promotes the concept of evil and uses fear of evil as a means of assisting members to maintain self-control.  As in #1 above, interacting with members of a feared or supposedly “evil” group who do not seem to us to be themselves fearsome or evil helps us to soften up our blanket judgments and realize that every group contains a considerable variety of people—some that you would avoid but many with whom you could even be friends.

3. Our economic success has led many people to believe that they deserve to have their values be dominant.  (We falsely tend to view those who succeed as “good” and those who do not as “bad” and undeserving, and we believe that we have succeeded because we are good.  If we are good, then our values must be better than the values of those who are bad.)  The differing values of liberals and conservatives are neither good nor bad in themselves, and neither is better than the other—it is simply a personal choice.  If you are liberal and want to understand others, admit that change is not always good, and tradition is often useful.  If you are conservative, admit that change is sometimes good and that too much adherence to tradition can stymie all improvement.  Other cultures may seem to have different values from ours, but if we look closely we can see that all human beings have the same basic goals—safety, security, some rewarding relationships, and raising children well.  Differing values are simply different ways of helping people achieve those goals.  This includes many moral positions.  Despite a few things that almost everyone agrees on, such as murder being wrong and harming others on purpose being wrong, people have widely varying beliefs about many aspects of morality, particularly across cultures.  Try to view such differences as things to explore and learn about, just as with non-moral differences.  There is no objective reason to say that any one moral stance is automatically any better or more true than another (although we could compare the results of two different beliefs on society as a whole).

4. Too often discussions about differences are approached by both parties with the aim of changing the other person’s mind so that they will be more like us.  This is practically a guarantee of failure in the discussion, since both parties will be defensive and/or aggressive in manner, which makes better understanding impossible.  Applying the statement above regarding cultural differences to the individual case, if we are willing, we can see that everyone (even spouses) have different viewpoints about the world and therefore different thoughts about how to maximize achievement of our goals.  Every person has had a somewhat different experience of years of living, so each has developed his or her own viewpoints.  Therefore, we will agree on some things (because there is considerable overlap among our experiences) but not on others.  Give up the idea that you can get others to see things exactly as you do.  The reason they don’t is not because they are stupid or stubborn but because they have had different lives than yours.  (You may believe that your spouse believes just as you do, but that’s because your spouse has never had the nerve to tell you about the differences!  The growing urban—rural split in our society illustrates the negative result of people living apart and having no idea how the other half lives.)

The way to accept that you can’t get everyone to agree with you and still get value from political discussions is to change your focus from trying to convince the other person to trying to understand his unique viewpoint.  Understanding your viewpoint and his viewpoint will allow you to see useful potential compromises more easily.

5. Our American emphasis on winning pushes us to fight those with whom we differ, as if one side will win and the other lose.  Persons who are going to understand and basically accept each other must accept that all positive values and viewpoints can be useful.  This makes winning less important and compromise more possible.  

We must admit that if in winning we put down, humiliate, and disadvantage others, then the other side will inevitably strive to gain more strength for further fighting.  No one accepts humiliation readily, and no one is likely to accept changing their values by force.  In order to work together amicably, we must not put ourselves above other citizens.  Human conflict arises when we perceive our goals to be incompatible with the goals of others and we then treat each other poorly in the course of pursuing our own goals (deceiving, pressuring, shaming, guilting, blackmailing).  The only way fighting can result in a decisive “win” is for one side to vanquish or subjugate the other.

We all try to influence each other every day (forcing agreement, buying agreement, shaming, educating), so we can all potentially benefit from making our methods of influencing more humane, fair, and honest.  As an overarching strategy for discussions of issues, we could just treat everyone with respect and courtesy and avoid disapproving of them, and this could work, but few people are prepared emotionally to do this without accepting the above principles and adjusting their negative instinctual reactions to things that are disagreeable to them.  We must stop trying to win and work toward finding the compromises that are good or at least acceptable for all.

Examine your wish to fight and get your own way.  You may enjoy fighting, but you have to admit that it accomplishes little.  Just look at how our Congress functions.  Getting your own way is actually damaging to democracy, since democracy is based on the notion that putting together many different views is the best way to find the best solution possible at the moment.

6. Evaluate the confidence and resilience of the other person.  For someone who is less secure, you will do well to be softer in your approach, while with someone who is stronger, you can be stronger.  Don’t take advantage of another person’s temperament to “win” or think yourself superior.

7. Since everyone’s views are unique, a political discussion cannot usefully be focused on getting another person to agree with our views, except perhaps through better agreement on the facts underlying a particular proposal.  The most useful political discussions take place in a context of accepting that we do have different views, so that we forget about trying to get the other person to agree with us and focus on understanding the other person’s views as a product of what he believes and what he has experienced.  The purpose of sharing ideas about public policy, then, must be to understand why the others’ views “make sense” given his life experience, rather than trying to change his views to be like ours. 

8. It helps to make your discussions civil to have the assumption that all persons have basic value just for being human.  We all struggle with similar things every day (fatigue, boredom, things that break, colleagues who mess up, things we don’t do well), so we do have an adequate basis for understanding each other, if we are willing to use it.  Remember that we all have the same basic goals in life, and anyone who manages to get through the day with some accomplishments and few injuries must be doing something right!

9. If we can see others as members of the same human race, and we can appreciate the efforts that we all must make to survive and prosper, then we can view others as basic equals, including those with whom we disagree.  We are all unique and somewhat different, but we can see each other as being basic equals and all having some basic rights (e.g., to exist, to be treated fairly, etc.).

10. Treat all others at all times with basic respect and courtesy.  This would follow naturally from seeing others as basic equals with ourselves, but even if we did not see others as equals, it would still make our discussions more productive to treat all others with basic respect and courtesy, since this would help us avoid using words and emotions as weapons in our efforts to get our own way by shaming, guilting, or putting others down.  (Remember we cannot win without destroying much that we love, so treating others with basic respect and courtesy is the best way to get the most out of eventual compromises.)

11. Treat others fairly at all times.  To treat others unfairly guarantees resentment and resistance, so stop trying to get your way by cheating and dominating.

12. Stop trying to take advantage of others, and accept that you cannot get more as a citizen than you are willing to allow others to have.  We worship competition, but competition ensures behavior similar to that of Congress, where members are always trying to get the most they can by taking advantage of others.  If you put yourself up, then you are putting others down, and they will hate you for it.  Accept that you are basically equal to others.  A government that treats everyone fairly makes sure that everyone benefits to approximately the same degree.

13. The genius of democracy is assuming that having all opinions expressed will lead to the best decisions for the total group (and giving everyone a voice in the decisions).  This usually means compromise.  No one gets exactly what she wanted, but almost everyone can get something of what she wanted.  If a sizeable percentage of citizens are consistently shut out and get nothing, then the country will be ripe for revolution.  It may be a tough pill to swallow to accept that you will almost never get exactly what you wanted policy-wise, but it is still the most fair form of government.  Accept and seek compromises in which everyone “wins.”

14. It will help the relationships between discussants if you acknowledge when the other person has made a potentially useful point.  You can say, “That’s a good point; I’m going to think more about that later.”  This doesn’t mean that you agree with everything the other person says, nor does it mean that you are changing your position.

15. It will help you to keep your feelings under control if you will assume that others are doing the best they can (just as you are doing the best you can), even when they disagree with you.  If you make any effort to understand others, you will see that we are all motivated and trying every day to reach our goals.  Even if the best that some can do right now is not particularly satisfying to you or helpful for others, they  are using methods that they believe have the greatest chance of getting them what they want, even if they are mistaken in their goals or mistaken in their methods.

16. Evaluate carefully information that pushes you to take sides and to believe the worst about certain others.  That information is probably someone’s effort to alter your perceptions for their own benefit, which in a way is an insult to your intelligence as well as evidence that they can’t be trusted.  Most of the cable news, on both sides, is slanted (biased), and is therefore to some degree wrong.  Even though Mr. Trump is quite biased in his own statements, he is right that there is a lot of bias in the news, much of which is unfair to him.

17. Stop taking status so seriously, and accept that no one is really any better than anyone else.  Stop seeing status as being equal to personal worth.  To see yourself as basically like others and an equal to others may be humbling, but status is artificial, and whenever you try to rise in status it will almost always push someone else down.  If you want to compete and put yourself above others, you may get public respect, but you will get private hatred, and this is bad for the country.

18.  In your discussions, stay aware of the needs and situations of all citizens, not just those we choose to have contact with.  As preparation for discussions, watch and read varied news and political outlets (Wall Street Journal, Fox News, N.Y. Times, Fox cable news, CNN, etc.).  Go to community functions where you can interact with those who have different views than yours.  Otherwise, you will lose touch with many of the country’s citizens.

In summary, attitudes and views of other people that promote cooperation and working together, even between those who are different, are—

·       viewing others as having basic value just for being human

·       viewing others as basic equals (expands our “in group”)

·       treating others at all times with basic respect and courtesy (not
demonizing our “opponents”)

·       treating others fairly

·       accepting that we will inevitably have somewhat different views

·       dealing with differences by seeking understanding and being

·       stopping using fighting as the way to get one’s way, since fighting
simply leads to more fighting

·       assuming that others are doing the best they can, even when they
disagree with us

·       rejecting false information about others that appeals to our self-
interest or prejudices

·       not insisting on winning over others (or, alternatively, trying to help
everyone “win”)

·       stopping trying to get what we want by taking advantage of others

·       not taking status positions so seriously and not seeing status as
equivalent to personal worth

·       using every policy decision as an opportunity to create a “win-win”


One concrete approach to rapprochement is to start serious, small group discussions between people of various backgrounds and allegiances in hopes that understanding those who are different from oneself can lead to changing attitudes on all sides.  These small groups across the country are showing considerable success, because they encourage practicing the following principles.

1. Whether your discussions are in a group or just between two people, it is absolutely essential that you go into discussions with persons who may disagree with you with the following attitudes and views–

·       viewing others as having basic value and as being basic equals,

·       prepared to treat others fairly and with respect, courtesy, and
attention to their needs,

·       believing that the other person has a right to his opinions and that
he has reasons (good reasons, to him) for why he believes the way
he does,

·       approaching others with a sincere desire to understand and
therefore to get along better with the other person,

·       viewing the other person as a fully human being, despite
weaknesses or behaviors that you don’t like.

If you haven’t integrated these attitudes into your self, at least to some degree, your discussions will almost certainly end up in shouting, frustration, etc.  If you don’t, for instance, believe that the other person is as entitled to his opinion as you are to yours (neither is automatically right without proof), you just won’t be able to stay calm when the other person espouses something that seems so different and bizarre to you.

To get past seeing the other person in terms of what you dislike, practice seeing that person in terms of her potential to be a good citizen and to make good decisions, given the right frame of mind and correct information about the world.  You may be able to give her important new information by what you reveal about yourself and how you reveal it, since you also have good reasons (in your own framework) for believing what you do.  Instead of feeling dislike or being offended, focus on understanding why she is the way she is.  Human beings are infinitely interesting to each other, since we are all so dependent on each other and since we all have basically the same goals in life.

2. Go into the interaction with a positive attitude, thinking that you will learn something interesting!  Do not set it up in your mind as a battle or a challenge.  Nothing someone else could say could invalidate your point of view, and nothing you could say will invalidate the other person’s point of view.

3. First, spend sufficient time finding out about the other person, rather than trying to put forth your own positions.  Ask questions rather than make statements.  At this point, you don’t know enough about the other person to make any conclusions or summary statements.  Ask about his background and what it was like for him growing up.  Ask about what he wanted to be when he grew up and how that changed over time.  Ask about his job and how he sees himself being treated by the overall economic system.  Ask about how he would like the country to be in the future and what would help it to get there.  Ask about how he views other citizens and how he feels about them.  Ask about his experience with those who are different from him.  Don’t respond, criticize, or comment about his answers.  Your job is to understand, not to evaluate or oppose.  (Voting is where you get your chance to oppose.)  Morals do not require you to criticize someone else every time he says something you don’t agree with (or, if your morals do demand that, they are quite aggressive morals and belong more in a monarchy than in a democracy).

Figure out why what he believes is natural (to him) given his background and life experience.  How we perceive and feel about how we have been treated, by our parents, our teachers, our employers, our elected officials, and our extended family, are primary forces in making the world seem as it does to us (which is not how the world “really” is, but is why we all have different views of the world).

4. Share the same kinds of things about yourself, that will make your beliefs “make sense” to the other person in terms of your background and life experience.  Accept the fact that with different background and life experiences, your beliefs would be different—no less true (to you), but different.  This tells us that no beliefs about political matters are sacred—they are simply someone’s belief about what works best, given that person’s background and life experience.   (This was true even about Adolf Hitler, and perhaps he would have benefited from talking things over with you, using the principles explained here!)

Unfortunately, most of us learn as children to hide our feelings and reveal personal things only sparingly, since we expect others to use such things against us, in teasing, criticism, or put-downs.  In coming to trust or relax with someone for discussions about difficult topics, though, the personal is often quite effective.  Don’t be afraid to illustrate what you tell about yourself with brief stories or humor, since that shows the other person that you don’t take yourself too seriously or always have to be right.

It is wise to do this in practice by yourself before you get to the discussion.  Ask yourself these question.  You will probably find that it is difficult to say exactly why you believe what you believe.  It will be interesting to see, if you are honest with yourself, why your background and life experience has led you to your beliefs.  There is no such thing as “I just know it.”  There are always reasons why you believe what you believe.  Doing this will help you to see why the questions you use to understand the other person are important.

5. If the other person is challenging or critical while you share your background or views, you need not walk away.  If you don’t feel threatened (if you are not ashamed or guilty about who you are and how you got there), there is no need to feel shamed or give up.  Stick with information, not justification, and certainly do not counterattack.  Otherwise, the whole discussion is just one big manipulation.  Point out that the other person is not following the guidelines for making the discussion work, and say how you are feeling (not to accuse the other person, but to simply voice his impact on you).

This getting acquainted process takes time, and both parties must be willing to invest the needed time.  That commitment itself signals an interest in the other party that is rare these days.  Unfortunately, most modern men and women are very busy, have gotten used to soundbites instead of actual discussion, and don’t have the patience or the attention span to really understand another human being!  You can be different!

6. You must want to explore and understand more than you want the other person to change.  Hopefully, since you each have only your own opinion and not the truth, both of you will walk away a little bit changed.

7. In your assertions, stick to “I” statements and questions (“I believe that ____ would solve this problem best, because I have observed ____ and seen ____ in my life).  Avoid “you” statements and telling the other person what she believes and why it is wrong.  Don’t do what politicians do, which is assert something as a fact that is really an opinion (“The fact is….,” “Everyone knows that….,” “The truth is….). 

8. When you share your views with the other person, treat it as just information and don’t try to make it a justification of your beliefs.  Stick to the personal (what you believe and why) rather than arguing political theory (conservative, liberal, libertarian, etc.).  (Five percent or less of citizens have the ability to discuss political theory in a useful way.  The cable political channels stick to the abstract and never analyze problems fully, which is why they stay superficial and which is why they make us feel good (or angry) but don’t help solve any problems.)

9. As you explore how the other person’s (and your own) experience determines his (and your) political positions, do not be defensive about yourself or critical of the other person.

10. If the atmosphere heats up, take a break.  Calm self-acceptance (being OK with yourself, not boasting or justifying) will calm the other person and promote an atmosphere of exploration rather than fighting. 

11. After equal sharing, you may then wish to explore how the other person’s life information relates to her political opinions–e.g., “How do you think your problems finding good jobs relate to who you voted for?”  Above all, do not be defensive about yourself or critical of the other person.  Your own views make so much sense to you that it is tempting to jump ahead to “How could you possibly believe that?” kinds of questions, but this is tempting only when you can’t imagine how anyone could possibly believe those things.  The fact that the other person does believe those things proves that others can have those views, so your job is to understand why the other person believes those things.  Expressions of understanding can aid in this process, such as “I see how what you’ve experienced in life would lead you to see politicians in the way you do.”  

Once you see how a person’s life experience is consistent with her opinions, you won’t feel a need to ask challenging questions.  A person’s preferences for an authoritarian president or a more democratic president and her choice for unbridled capitalism or a more managed economy all stem from her experiences and how she sees the world.  In understanding the views of another person who is different from ourselves, a step forward is to question if our own choices in these matters would really benefit everyone or just our own group of people.

12. Put forth your views on policy questions calmly and illustrate what you believe would be the consequences for society if they were implemented.  All views have a kind of legitimacy as personal views, if they arise from experience and are consistent with that experience, but each view will have different consequences.  Politics is not concerned with what is true as much as it is with what is possible.  Most societal decisions are made without anyone knowing exactly what the results will be, but we must try our best to predict those consequences, and expressing what you believe will happen, and why, will assist with this group process.

If you express a policy preference (how to manage society, how to deal with a problem, etc.), be specific about how to implement it, and be honest about all of the effects it might have, not just the results you wish to see.  For example, don’t just argue about whether abortion is right or wrong, but propose a specific compromise that would be useful (like a time limit in a pregnancy after which there will be no abortion, or an exception in the case of fetuses that are expected to have catastrophic developmental problems).

13. You can stand up for your beliefs and views and for their behavioral implications while at the same time accepting that someone else has different beliefs and views.  Just because the other person isn’t persuaded to your view doesn’t mean that your view is wrong (and vice versa).

14. Speaking more loudly or forcefully does not give your views any more weight, nor does calling others names or saying negative things about them.  That simply says that you don’t understand the issue fully.  Efforts to force others to go along with your views will destroy any discussion.  This includes appeals to superiority/inferiority (“You should go along with my view because I have more status than you”), threats of potential violence or other harm (“If you don’t go along with my view, I might hurt you”), trying to humiliate the other person so she will give up, and domination by speaking more loudly or using body language to dominate the other person.  These methods may result in apparent agreement, but they totally disrespect the other person, which will result long-term in resentment and quite likely in eventual betrayal.

15. Some people feel that if they treat an opponent with respect that this means that they are “giving in” or agreeing with the opponent, but this is not so.  You can treat a person with whom you disagree with respect and courtesy and still completely disagree.  The feeling that you must disrespect and shun anyone you disagree with stems from family experiences in which the person who “won” all the arguments was the person with the most power, which, of course, is a completely different ethic than the one proposed in this essay.  Think back to how you felt when you had to give in to the more powerful family member.  It’s no way to get along.

16. Beware of exaggerated language in political discourse (“oppression” is in most cases actually harm, and “greed” in many cases is actually desire).  If you use these inflammatory words, you will lose the respect of the other person.  Say exactly the truth as you understand it, and don’t exaggerate as a beginning bargaining position.  The other person will respect you more.  Politicians and cable news exaggerate all the time, thinking that it will be more convincing, but it’s just an insult to your intelligence.

17. When the discussion is over, continue your courteous approach by thanking the other person for sharing and trying to explain things from her viewpoint.  If you have learned something valuable, say so.


In assessing a position, the key questions are (1) whether is it consistent with reality or based on false or shaky beliefs, and (2) what all of its consequences would be if that view determined our law and/or governmental actions.  Every policy/law has some negative consequences for someone.  If your view is adopted, then you are responsible not only for the results that you like but also for the damage that your policy/law does to some citizens. 

Make it an expectation that all speeches and writing advocating for any position on an issue (in Congress, in the media, etc.) must include some discussion of both the pros and the cons of that position.   Do this in your own discussions and writing.  Do this when you think about and formulate your views.  To do this, you will have to admit that you could be wrong!  Our habit in this society is to make everything a debate, which encourages people to state only what they want you to believe.  We learn much more when both sides must explain the things that are problematic in their positions.

Make any advocate for a particular position or solution account for the expected impact of his/her solution on all groups of citizens.  Political discourse should be a search for the closest to the truth that we can get, not an exercise in who can get the most votes.

(For more on these issues and values, see my essays “The Solution To All Human Interactional Problems” and “Bridging Societal Differences” on