Civil discourse: Talking across the divide

May 19, 2024 | Advocacy

How do you have a productive conversation with someone when you disagree with their point of view? Is it possible to talk across the divide when there is so much incivility in our community?

As members of Sustainable Macleod, we can be expected to have strong views on critical sustainable issues, from climate change to biodiversity, from social equity to access to nutritious food.

As members of Sustainable Macleod, we not only have our views, we advocate for them and attempt to influence public opinion and policy. Our rules, which govern our organisation, have as the first purpose: ‘To advocate for the adoption of a sustainable vision in and practices for Macleod and the wider community.’ The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines advocate as: ‘to argue in favour of; to recommend publicly.’

Previously Sustainable Macleod has presented our position on issues including the North East Link, urban food strategy and parking meters in Macleod, as well as promoting clean energy through the Clean Energy Expo last year.

In the process of advocating for issues, we will inevitably bump up against members of our community who hold different – often opposing – points of view on these issues. To win these people over and persuade decision-makers to respond positively on sustainability issues, we need to consider how we go about our advocacy.

The skill of civil discourse – productive public debate on important issues – has suffered greatly with the rise of social media. The rapid-fire nature of comments and the anonymity available on these platforms pushes us towards polarisation. Discussion is often replaced by reaction, making nuanced discussion all but impossible.

If we aim to win people over to our point of view, rather than just vent our opinions, we need to genuinely engage with them, no matter how much their opinion goes against our strongly held views. If we can achieve this, we have a good chance of a fruitful discussion and possibly some shared agreement on issues.

Genuine engagement starts with the recognition that on many issues, we will have common ground. We all share the fundamental concerns of life. We want the best for ourselves, our families and the community we live in. Differences generally arise when we have opposing ways of achieving these ends.

As an example, take someone advocating the replacement of fossil fuels with clean energy. This might well come from a concern for their children’s future. Someone arguing for continuation – or expansion – of fossil fuel use, might be equally concerned by the possibility that there won’t be reliable employment for themselves and their children. Each of these positions is centred on a legitimate fear and deserves to be heard.

In talking to someone with an opposing view, our discussion will go far better if we prioritise listening over speaking. The tendency when we encounter an opposing view, is to state our position more emphatically. It doesn’t take long for each of us to turn into opponents, arguing our corner even more passionately. If we can simply take in the other person’s ideas without judgement, the other person will be more willing to hear what we have to say.

Managing our emotional reactions when faced with an opposing view can be challenging, but it is essential in a serious discussion. The formal rules around meetings are largely designed to counter the natural tendency to react emotionally to some issues. Being faced with a view that seems to violate our principles can make it very difficult to remain level-headed. Knowing our emotional trigger points and doing our best to contain our reactions can be critical in maintaining a civil discussion.

Approaching a difficult conversation with genuine curiosity about the other person’s views can be a powerful aid to civil discourse. We can focus on what has brought this person to conclusions opposite to our own. We can ask them to explain how they arrived at their views. Curiosity is the key tool for therapists and allows us to seek understanding rather than conflict.

As advocates for a cause, there is great value in attempting to understand our opponents’ views. If we are serious in our role as advocates, training ourselves to be open to hearing the opposing view can lead to a stronger grasp of our position and make us better advocates for it. Understanding, for example, the fear a coal worker in the Hunter Valley might have about the loss of their job and income with the closing of a coal mine, can help us better advocate for the increasing use of renewables.

Shouting across the divide is unlikely to help us get our point across in a meaningful way. Serious advocacy can only be effective if we encourage civil discourse. Our community will be a more connected, resilient and ultimately sustainable one if we do.

Written by Paul Gale-Baker