By Melanie Wilt

Americans everywhere seem to be struggling to find ways to express deeply personal — perhaps conflicting — feelings about very important issues, such as race relations, culture, spirituality and politics. We could do as our parents taught us and attempt to avoid all conversation that has to do with politics, religion and sex, or we can apply some simple communication strategies to help us through these difficult conversations with our heads, hearts and relationships intact. 

The acronym CIVIL is a reminder of these simple principles to ensure a better outcome and understanding. 

Compassion – Also known as caring for another human being, compassion is hard to fake. You either have it or you don’t. If you care about human life and the other person in the conversation, it’s so much easier to have a civil exchange. One of the things that I hate about social media is the removal of the personal relationship. For example, my real-life friend posts something on her Facebook page. I post an encouraging statement in agreement with her statement, and one of her other friends who I don’t know, posts something nasty in response to my comment. It’s easy to lose the ability to have compassion because I don’t know this guy. Real productive conversation requires an attempt to see the best in someone else. 

I also think it’s important to point out that we can be compassionate and caring towards another individual and still disagree with them. Showing that I care and understand their concerns doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with them — it just means that I can see where they’re coming from and why a certain issue may concern them. 

Intention – What are your intentions? Do you truly want to have civil discourse, or do you just want to be right? It’s only possible to have productive dialogue if you’re willing to have your own opinions and ideas challenged as you challenge others.

Verification – Are you working with good information – and all of it that’s available? Be careful not to let confirmation bias enter into your research. Confirmation bias is the premise that you make up your mind on a topic first and then seek out sources that confirm that opinion. It’s ok to use some of those sources of information, but challenge them with others that don’t “speak your language.” Be sure to seek out multiple sources that are transparent in their reporting methods, cite data and sources, and are funded by legitimate sources rather than political action committees. 

Interest – Are you truly interested in what another has to say, or are you waiting for them to stop talking so you can say what’s on your mind? True civil discourse allows you to challenge another’s idea but only by paying attention and respect to the other parties. If you show interest, you might gain greater insight into an opposing opinion that may actually strengthen your position. 

Listening – This is the most important of all communication skills and the hardest for all of us to abide, especially when what we’re listening to makes us uncomfortable. Try to listen through the point of discomfort, take time to ask good questions, and understand and respond without interruption.