bottling civility

Bottling Civility: Talking Respectfully About Tough Topics

This blog first appeared over a year ago. I find that I need the message it contains even more than when I first posted it:

"Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters! Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” James 1:19

How can we talk about controversial topics in a meaningful way?

I’ve witnessed or been in on some contentious discussions in the last several months. Some on Facebook have included profanity and name calling—and this among believers.

On the other hand, I have the privilege of participating with a small, but diverse group of believers in some mind-expanding discussions on

potentially explosive topics. Our conversations have been exhilarating—and humbling. The group is a multi-generational gathering of men and women, multi-racial, probably from multiple political parties. We’ve had the opportunity both to express different viewpoints honestly and to realize the limitations of our perspectives.

I wish I could bottle the essence of that group and sell it in vending machines all over the world.

So I am going to offer you a bottle of Civility this month to open with your family and friends, and do I ever need a swig of it.

My husband, adult children, in-laws, friends and I have different opinions on many issues. Those who know me well would not be surprised to know that I have failed often in the last few months to engage in civil discourse with my family. Oh, we’ve talked all right, but it hasn’t always been civil.

So here are a few ingredients I am putting in my bottle of Civility:

         Love and respect. Keep focused on your friends' and family members’ good qualities and your history of positive relationship when you are talking with them. Don’t lose sight of the love and sacrifices that bind you together and maintain the relationship with those close to you.

·         The right time and place. Don’t talk to your spouse about controversial issues when he walks in the door from work or right when she is dropping off to sleep. More than once my husband has disengaged and said to me, “Do we absolutely need to talk about this right now, or can it wait?” Don’t initiate such a conversation while your spouse is prepping for a 12-person dinner party or in the middle of wallpapering the bathroom. Pray for wisdom and wait for the right time if you intend to have a tough conversation on a contentious topic.

·         A mutual desire to talk. Far too often I engage in ambush conversations: my friend or family member is relaxing or helping me in the kitchen; I pounce. “Did you hear what I heard on the news? I'm so mad I could spit.” No answer. (You can already tell this is not a discussion. This is an attack looking for a victim.) Some people are not interested in discussing their viewpoint. I can’t make them and my attack posture is uninviting. Both parties in a polite conversation must share a desire to talk.

·         A commitment to learn and understand. If you and your brother, sister, husband, child or in-law have a drastically different viewpoint on something, approach them with a genuine desire to understand how they came to that viewpoint. If you don’t want to understand their viewpoint and how they arrived at it, you are not looking for a conversation, you are looking for a podium. For example, my husband has a God-given responsibility to provide for the two of us, both now and in retirement years. That influences his position on financial decisions. I need to bear his responsibility in mind when I talk with him about finances.

·         Common ground. As you learn and listen to your  friends and family members, look for common ground. I have entered into discussions with my adult sons. We don’t see eye to eye on everything. I can belittle their perspectives or empathize with their values and recognize our common faith, even if we come to different conclusions. One approach shuts down communication. The other opens it up. We can choose whether we want argument and withdrawal or thoughtful discussion.

I hope you’ll stir up a batch of Civility. It won’t guarantee agreement, but it will preserve relationships and open the door to future dialogues. It also has the side effect of teaching your children how to think and communicate graciously by example. 

Beth Barron and her husband have worked cross-culturally for decades, first in the Middle East and now in the U.S. She teaches English to refugees and uses her writing skills to advocate for them. Beth enjoys writing, biking, vegetable gardening and connecting heart to heart with other women. She is involved in her church's External Focus ministry. She and her husband have three adult children, two daughters-in-love and three grandsons. Beth graduated from Rice University in Houston, attended Dallas Theological Seminary and is committed to life-long learning.