The Art of Discourse

Those of you who follow my blog Strong in the Broken Places will have noticed that I have not posted there in awhile. That is because my interests and pre-occupations have been broadening beyond the scope of that blog. I do not know, at this moment, if I will return to it, but here at The Forum for Discourse, I’d like to start a new kind of conversation today. I’d like to start a conversation about conversation with those of you who are brave and game enough for the venture; and I’d like to start a conversation about important issues that we face as a society and a planet.

You see, I’ve noticed that our means of near-instantaneous communication have multiplied–cell-phones, text-messages, instagram, facebook, email, linkedin, pinterest, twitter–and yet, the quality of our conversation has not kept up to pace. If anything, real, civil discussion about important matters seems to have suffered. Political people post about political topics, and those who agree with them read their posts and feel shored up and congratulate each other. Politer people refrain from posting such things in the first place. If two people of opposing viewpoints happen to start commenting on the same thing, the loudest one “wins.”

But nobody really wins, and that’s my point.

Our society is facing huge challenges today. What will we do about crippling student debt? Over-testing and failing schools? The housing crisis? Reproductive rights? Police violence against racial minorities? There are big questions that we all need to grapple with. What is Marriage? Who has the right to control who does it? What is mental illness? How do we define it? How do we interact with those who are suffering? Is there a place for faith in our society? And how do we allow faith into our daily lives while being respectful and caring towards those with different beliefs than ours?

If we all just believe what we believe and assume that “the other side” is stupid, I think we’re in trouble. But even trying to discuss these topics takes bravery, open-mindedness, and a whole slew of skills that are very tricky, and possibly–in this internet age–not yet even invented.

So today I want to ask: what makes discourse possible?

In a facebook flamewar I engaged in last night, I noticed that rudeness shuts down discussion. If you treat the other person like they are stupid, they aren’t going to share their thoughts openly. And the other side of that is that you aren’t going to really be listening to them if you think they are stupid.

Also, sometimes people don’t express themselves well, or they don’t express themselves the way you are used to. People with different perspectives often come from widely different backgrounds–socio-economic, religious, educational, regional–so we can’t expect everyone to share their ideas in the way that we would prefer. But if we really want to understand what they are saying, we will make an effort to look past those differences.

So here are my rules for discourse so far:

  1. Treat others with courtesy.
  2. Be actually open to others’ ideas.
  3. Try to understand the actual point being made.
  4. Ask clarifying questions if necessary.
  5. (via Pattie Brown) Pause before you post!

What other rules would you add? Have you had successful discussions on fraught topics? And what made them successful? I look forward to hearing from you!


4 thoughts on “The Art of Discourse

  1. What a way to throw down the gauntlet and challenge us, as a society, to think about our words and how they impact others! I would love for this to go viral.
    One suggestion to add to your list: Think before you differ. Or, Pause before you post.
    While it’s tempting to jump in with opinions, sometimes people post hastily without stopping to consider the ripples that might be created. If everyone goes on five minute delay mode (or an hour, or a day!) and stops to consider what their words add to a discussion, we might have more fruitful discourse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Patti! I completely agree. And this is something I am so often bad about. I am far too opinionated for my own good and then I say something quickly that is not well-enough thought out, and I have gone and alienated the other person before the discussion has even gotten started!


  2. Love this idea of having open, honest, and meaningful conversation. I often find myself responding passionately and even irritably when others seem to hold a differ perspective than me, especially when I perceive them as ignoring evidence that would question their beliefs. When the opinion is stated on electronic media, I’ll often choose just not to respond at all, thinking that such dialogue has little productive value. I wonder, though, at ways of bridging that divide to overcome ideological differences. Perhaps agreeing to some basic ground rules is a start, and setting that intention of debating different viewpoints from the outset would bring out the best in all people involved. Seems like we all could benefit from learning to be less tribal in this global community and focus more energy building empathy, understanding, and meaningful dialogue to overcome the many challenges we humans have created for ourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes to most all of this. I also usually just don’t engage when I don’t feel like a discussion is going to be fruitful. But it’s a problem, isn’t it? I’m not sure setting ground rules for discussion is enough to change this, though. It seems to me like a more fundamental willingness to really be open to others is necessary. And that is so hard. I’m not sure, practically speaking, how to even move in that direction.


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