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How to Engage in Civil Discourse

     Engaging in civil discourse is the best tool we have as a society to reach mutual understanding. However, it feels that more often than not people just want to fight. It takes work to change the minds of the blissfully ignorant. That goal can only be achieved through facts and civil discourse. It is how we can maintain relationships across conflicting beliefs and how to gain the respect of those we disagree with. If done well, you could potentially change the minds of many. Some of our best allies will be the ones who have been persuaded.

     If you use these tools while arguing, you can transcend into civil discourse and change someone for the better. The best-case scenario to find yourself in is a conversation where the mutual goal is to reach an understanding. Of course, this will often not be the case, especially when conversing with many kids on the right. Conservatives have an acute awareness that liberals have strong emotions connected to our beliefs. Remember that our feelings stem from the cold hard facts of injustice. They will push all of our buttons the wrong way because they want our emotions to take over. If that happens, you lose credibility. Despite this, there are still ways to handle these potentially heated interactions.

     In this section, I will be referencing videos from the YouTube channel Charisma on Command. This YouTube channel has many videos that can teach us how to use subconscious psychological signals to our advantage. I will be talking specifically about a video that has helped me a lot when it comes to these difficult conversations. This video shows how Trevor Noah enters heated arguments while still maintaining composure and ends them by creating understanding instead of enemies. Please watch this and apply it to your conversations. We must have more allies than enemies.

If you elect to skip the videos, the link at the top of this section will bring you to a simple breakdown I’ve created. My breakdown will also tell you how to apply these tactics more directly to the debates around BLM. 

*Note that while most of these tips will work online, people often hide behind their screens and won't be as open to having their opinions challenged. These tips work best in face-to-face interactions.*

Guide to Civil Discourse

1. ​ Sub-communicate that you are not there for a malicious debate.

Often when engaging in conversation with opposing viewpoints, people are ready to be on the defensive side and to start a fight to prove why they are correct. Most right-minded people often get attacked for their beliefs, as well as left-sided people, and we both hate the feeling of being antagonized for our views. As people become more and more passionate and frustrated in an argument, they will raise and speed up their voices. If both parties begin to raise their voice, they instantly dig into their beliefs and view their opponent as immature and childish. This childlike behavior will never lead to changing someone's mind. Here is how to sub-communicate that you are here to have a civil conversation and not a verbal brawl.

i) Slow down the conversation.

When your opponent is rushing to talk over you, they are about to become heated, and the conversation will move nowhere past there. If this happens, let them finish their rant and take a deep breath (try not to sigh sarcastically), breathe, recollect your thoughts, gage your emotions, and respond in a calm, controlled voice that directly contrasts theirs. If you are texting, don't respond right away, calm yourself. Do not name-call.

ii) Use upward inflection.

Using upward inflections can sub-communicate that you are not there to command them. It instead tells them that you are asking genuine questions. "I understand how that statistic seems to prove that, but have you considered their polling demographic?" People tend to react significantly warmer when they don't feel antagonized!

iii) Crack a joke!

As weird as it may feel to crack jokes while discussing such a serious topic, getting someone to laugh with you will send the unconscious message that "we are all people and we are all in this together." Of course, this is easy for stand up comedian Trevor Noah, but here is something anyone can try. Acknowledge that typically these conversations are much less civil, and make a joke based around that fact. It also helps if you can let it make your opponent look good.

 "I appreciate that you are not calling me a libtard; you are really standing up out of the crowd!" 

Chances are they will appreciate the subtle compliment and like the recognition of being above the people who use name-calling as an argument. It will help them realize how immature some of these kids, that are associated with their party, tend to be. Maybe it will make them want to break away. Don't be afraid to step out of your "expert" demeanor and simply relax. (Also, don't be scared to take a joke at your expense!)

While cracking a joke, however, make sure that it is not at the expense of Black people, other people of color (POC), or just generally insensitive in any way.

iv) Use your body language.

When humans feel threatened, their body is the first thing to show it. We often cross our arms and hide our palms when we get defensive. These actions send signals to both your brain and the person you are talking to. It tells your brain that you are under attack and floods your body with anxiety. This will affect how confidently your response will be, giving your opponent the chance to bite down and dominate the conversation. Leaning forwards will also send signals. We lean forwards when we feel the need to attack. If you find yourself feeling anxious/defensive or on the offensive, try the following:

  1. Take a breath

  2. Lean back

  3. Expose your palms

  4. Just try to relax

These will send a signal to your brain that everything is under control, while also reassuring your opponent that you are not here to fight.

2. Ask questions instead of making statements.

 This was mentioned before, but there's always more to discuss! Asking questions will show that you came to the conversation not to shut down whoever is across from you by overloading them with information, but instead to reach a greater understanding. Here are ways to structure and ask questions that change minds effectively.

i) Don't JUST list statistics:

As humans, we never like to feel dumb. This document arms us with facts, but we cannot just bombard the people we are talking to with percentages. When stating facts, avoid the “Ben Shapiro” tactic of speaking fast and overpowering. Stay relaxed and make sure you can fully explain them. Know the reason why statistics look the way they do. It is best to understand why someone may not understand them the first time.

Avoid using phrases like “No, that’s incorrect…” 

Instead, get excited about your statistics. Try delivering your facts with a smile and use your energy to infect them.

Try phrases like: “I cannot stop thinking about this statistic I just learned! It honestly made me rethink a lot of what I used to think!”

This is incredibly effective, because it tells them that if your mind is open to change, maybe their’s should be, too.

ii) Ask genuine questions:

Do not ask questions with the intent to aggravate your opponent.

"So you're a racist because you say “all lives matter”, right?”

That question is unproductive; no one will admit to being a racist in that manner (I hope). Instead, they will feel personally attacked and get defensive. Instead, let the person know that you are genuinely trying to understand their point of view. Use upward inflections and ask questions that won't vilify your opponent.

iii) Ask questions that ensure YOU understand what they are trying to say:​

  1. These questions are incredibly beneficial to you, your character, and your argument. Make sure that before moving on, you truly understand their argument. If you fully understand, you can avoid rebutting points that they never even made, and prove that you are a good listener who's willing to seek a mutual understanding, they will reciprocate the action.

  2. AVOID putting words in their mouth. Start questions with:

"I just want to make sure I understand what you're saying when you say...." 

instead of:

"So what you’re saying is…" 

Make sure you give them time to reiterate if they think you did not understand the first time. And, of course, be patient.

iv) Use the Socratic method:

The Socratic method is the practice of using questions to point out hypocrisy and inconsistency in an argument. This is where we see the importance of fully understanding their argument. Be careful not to put words in their mouth, and do the following:

First, genuinely try and understand their position and state it back to them. THEN frame your disagreements in the form of a question.

“Let me make sure I understand your point. What I think I’m hearing is that you believe all lives matter, and that every person deserves to be treated equally, right?”

*Let them respond/clear up any misunderstanding.*

“Then I have to ask, how come you were not saying all lives matter while defending the government's treatment of undocumented kids?”

Again, this method allows you to get your points across and accuse someone of hypocrisy without ever antagonizing them. This method is difficult to apply seamlessly. That is why you have to truly set your ego aside and listen. Also the reason why knowing history and statistics is important. Don't stop learning.

3. Confidently defend yourself and belief without appearing like an antagoniser.

When attempting to engage in civil discourse, there is often a shared feeling that “because my beliefs are under attack, my entire character is as well”. While it is partially true that certain beliefs lead to certain character traits, it is not the goal of civil discourse to make those connections. The goal is to influence someone's beliefs so that their character changes with it. Here are some tips to ensure your defenses are not viewed as hostile and how you can disarm their attacks with maturity.

i) Yes… but/hidden premises

When arguing with someone, our opponents often try to make us feel guilty for a particular stance or tactic. In true civil discourse, it will rarely be as obvious as “that’s stupid that you believe that way”. Instead, that message will be hidden in certain accusatory statements. These are known as hidden premises.

If someone is accusing you of believing in something you don't agree with, or attempting to unfairly put words in your mouth, try the “yes… but” tactic. The key is to validate at least ONE thing about the other person's statement, and then proceed with your rebuttal. The goal is to make your opponent understand that the action you are accused of is not what they are painting it to be. If you stand your ground, you will appear confident and your opponent will see that their attempts to shut you down are not working. If an argument “feels wrong” but you don’t know why, try to find the hidden premise within it.  Here’s a (blatant) example of a hidden premise and a “yes… but” response:

“Oh, you're just over-dramatic and emotional.” (The goal of your opponent here is to invalidate your emotions.)

Here's how I would respond:


“Yes, you are right,  I am 100% being dramatic… But please understand where my emotions are stemming from. They come from the issues that are being ignored by many of the people affiliated with your party, and there shouldn’t be anything wrong with attempting to sympathize with the suffering of POC and expressing my emotions that have arisen because of it.”

I start the response by saying that I agree with that direct statement, and I end it by stating that I am not offended by that statement and that they shouldn't either. This response proves that I am confident in my beliefs, and maybe they should be as well.

4. How to implement, where to find these conversations, and how to leave them.

The potential for these conversations are everywhere, and all it takes is the nerves to start them. If you truly believe in yourself and your views, then you should want to test them against opposing views. This never means “go pick a fight with a random commenter”. Instead, it means that if you know someone personally who may have slightly or extremely different opinions, engage them, and ask them genuine questions. Understand that just because you know the political views of a person does not mean you know them yet. Take the time to have real civil discourse and then draw your conclusions afterward.

If you make it clear that you are open to having your beliefs changed in some manner, then they will adopt the same mindset. Understand that you may have been subject to just as much conditioning as they have. Trust that changing your beliefs doesn’t diminish you or make you a hypocrite. I have engaged in many conversations throughout the week, before everyone I told myself, “I am ready to see if they have new information that will change my mind.” and as of now, not a single one has.

Most people (on any side of the political spectrum) will not be able to put aside their egos and admit that they were wrong and their mind is changed. If by the end of your conversations you've found that your facts, general historical knowledge, and attempts to understand your opponent have left you coming out on top, leave it on a good note. It will not be obvious that you’ve changed their mind. Resist the urge to call them a racist or block them. This will cause them to forget all the great points you made and instantly discredit your efforts. No matter how it ends, leave the conversation as civilly as it started and understand that they may still be ignorant. You have to hold onto the belief that the dialogue you two shared will start them on a path of accepting change. Never let this conversation die.

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Adrian Antonioli


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