10 Easy Steps to Engaging in Civil Discourse

by Isabele Riser

Below you can find 10 Easy Steps on how to not be an idiot when discussing politics/social/cultural issues with your peers, parents, teachers, friends, and pets.

Dear Readers,

Civil discourse is REAL people, and we gotta do it. And we’ve got to learn things in the process. It’s been a little while since we were crammed into a room with our advisories and engaged in a civil debate, but honestly it should be happening on campus everyday. We are here to explore, create, connect, and blah blah blah… Anyway, it’s clear we need more instruction and I’m about to school you on how to have these conversations with your peers, your teachers, your home slices (I’m sorry I can’t stop) and your pets (this is incredibly important for household morale). Read on for my interpretation of Civil Discourse and how you too can make it a part of your daily life…for the sake of the children.

Why hasn’t the administration created more opportunities to engage in civil discourse? Post-election, it seems clear we are desperate for it. Civil discourse is more than necessary–our future depends on it. Since OES and the adults running this machine of a prep school are unable to step forward, or are holding back in efforts to be sensitive to 2016 election, it’s been up to students to start these difficult conversations about…everything that is happening in our world today.

This article is about how individuals at OES should conduct ourselves (filthy animals), and how we can start conversations that nobody else can really start for us. It’s easy to be annoyed with the Administration for failing to set the tone and modeling good discussion etiquette–but we also need to step up and take some risks here, too.

Why, you ask, wryly? Because civil discourse is FUN and COOL and you should do it because everybody else is doing it too. Plus, we need to support our democracy.

Step 1:

Understand your political views, and all the privileges that comes with it as well as the space you’re in.

What you believe and why has a lot to do with where you come from, what your values are, and the messages you’ve received from day uno. Understanding the privilege you have in relation to the space you’re in is one of the keys to avoiding one sided conversations (that would be a jerky thing to do). If you are an outspoken liberal in a place like OES with a largely liberal demographic… you have an obligation to make an effort to hear and not squash your conservative peers…and vice versa. And how do you understand yourself and your political identity well enough to act appropriately about it you ask? Well….

Step 2:

Research, research, research.

Before you can even argue a point, you have to come from somewhere, and you gotta have the facts and information to back it. Read the news, READ THE DIG, look it up on the interwebs, pay attention in your history class; ‘cause it really will serve you later when you can cite the Declaration of Independence or Howard Zinn on the spot and baffle everyone in the hype circle around you. To get to this acclaimed hype circle scenario however, you gotta…..

Step 3:

Start, yes start, an argument.

Some topics to casually bring up in large groups when you’re feeling like stirring things up:

  • Women’s Rights (reproductive, equal pay, feminism etc.): What does feminism mean to you?
  • Immigration: What do you think about the travel ban? What does it mean to be an American?
  • Black Lives Matter: Do you think there’s a reason for Black Lives Matter? What is it?
  • Dakota Access Pipeline: Do you think the government has a right to take away these Native People’s land for oil?
  • Buzzwords to Unpack: Slut/whore, ‘The N Word’, Redskins, Other racist slang terms, etc. Why do you think it’s OK or not OK to use these terms?
  • Gender/Sexuality Norms: Do you think that gender binary restrooms are a good thing or something that should be subject to change in the future?


For those of you who looooove conflict or conflict resolution or talking until your mouth is dry and your feelings are hurt…this should be easy. For those who are reserved or introverted or more apathetic…This could be a challenge for so many reasons. Luckily for you… there’s plenty of people happy to cause problems for you, at which point all you have to do is jump in when you feel comfortable.. Or uncomfortable… *gasp* this brings me to step 4:

Step 4:


SHOCKING: someone has disagreed with your personal or political beliefs and you just can’t comprehend WHY because you are so clearly RIGHT and they are obviously…STUPID. When this happens, take a step back and take a breath.  Use this moment to meditate on how uncomfortable it is to find out that someone you love doesn’t.. believe.. in global warming. You think to yourself: UGH disgusting you can’t even deal with them anymore. You think to yourself: you have to fix their mindset and your gut reaction is to immediately fire back for the sake of the polar bears BUT YOU CAN’T BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO:


Ask questions and find out as much as you can BEFORE you open your mouth.

While you might be inclined to say, “Are you kidding me?! Really?! You just don’t believe the ice caps are melting?? Are you a moron??” This will get you nowhere.

Instead, how about you try something like this: “Tell me why you think that the scientific evidence behind Global Warming isn’t relevant or true or pertinent to the future of the planet..” This gives your friend an opportunity to explain herself and become more comfortable having a conversation about polar bears with you. Honestly, you can absolutely demolish a person’s argument just by phrasing your points as questions. However, while asking questions is important, possibly THE MOST IMPORTANT THING to do when they’re spewing their opinion/information at you is to…

Step 6:

Listen Listen Listen Listen Listen HAVE AN OPEN MIND Listen.

Your friend is a human too, a human who is also experiencing this world as you are, and in a totally completely different way. The better you understand the experience they’ve had, the better you can understand them and respond to them. So take the time to understand this person despite the core of your being being absolutely shook at their disdain for the polar bears. And because they probably feel just as shook as you, remember to…

Step 7:

Keep in mind the emotional and mental state of your friend.

Assess the situation: are they sobbing through their reasoning? Do they look as though they are about to pass out or need a glass of water? This might be a good time to put a pause on this conversation. Remember, throughout civil discourse, pay attention to the state of your opponent friend, because we’re not trying to sabotage relationships over the melting ice caps… *grimace*. Conversely it’s probably a good idea to prepare yourself emotionally and…

Step 8:

Don’t take things personally.

Okay so don’t be a wimp. This social interaction is basically just a massive attack on everything you ever thought you knew. It’s rough. We get it. But also.. get over it. Hopefully your opponent I MEAN FRIEND is attacking your ideas, not you. If this is a legitimate non-personal argument you shouldn’t get offended. Take that energy and ask questions and fire back and DISCOURSE. But if you can’t handle the discourse, it’s totally cool and fine to get the heck out of there by saying something like, “Hey guys. I don’t feel emotionally safe in this discussion about Trump’s tan lines, I need a breather. Let’s drop it for now.” And if you notice somebody getting emotionally overwhelmed…..

Step 9:

Know when it’s appropriate to have these conversations, and know when to stop.

Fully assess the situation. When your child comes home with a bloody nose from their lacrosse game or is muttering incoherently to themselves about their science research project, and how they’re wishing the Physics lab would just implode…maybe don’t ask them for their evaluation of the accuracy of mainstream American media in 2017? And if your kid starts tearing up when you’re trying to explain to them that oil drilling might be killing some people in other countries… stop talking. Sometimes it’s best to revisit the topic at another time…or maybe just don’t bring it up again at all ever. Know the limits. However the conversation ends, ultimately make sure you…

Step 10:

Learn something for goodness sake.

The entire point of civil discourse is to promote ~togetherness~ ,~learning~ ,~mutual understanding~, and ~love~. You have to come into a civil discourse with an open mind-bowl in order to walk away with it full. If you walk into the discourse with a lid on…you’re gonna walk away hungry, (for knowledge).

Frequently asked questions about civil discourse

Sometimes I don’t feel like I know enough about a topic to jump in, but I have opinions about the issue overall.. what do I DO?

Stay informed, seriously, but also don’t be afraid to make mistakes or be called out for them because then ultimately you’ve learned something. Also, ask questions. Also, use this opportunity to educate yourself later on and embrace the new issue you have to complain about.

I have better things to talk about during my lunch period. Why should I make an effort to cause problems when gossiping and eating is so much easier?

CIVIL DISCOURSE IS ACTUALLY SO FUN. The rush you get when you absolutely slam a misconception someone else has is just invigorating. Starting these conversations with your friends during lunch, who are most likely likeminded people, is a good warmup to the real deal with disagreements and such. Start small, learn more, then pick some fights discourses and you’ll be surprised when you walk away feeling slightly more educated and proud of yourself for being so mature after engaging in a true civil discourse.

These conversations always make me so emotional. I can’t.

Always remember that you can back out of these conversations if it gets to be too much, and not everyone is going to handle these discussions the right way. Try channeling that passion into a compelling, soul crushing argument, and remember that this is an opportunity to teach someone else about your worldview while simultaneously learning from them as well. It’s hard to change your mind, but it’s worth it to walk away smartier.

Things to remember:

Don’t forget, not everyone has the willpower to not scream “NO UTERUS NO OPINION” the second a white-male argues or agrees with a policy on birth control, for example (*cough* me). Not everyone is as intelligent and thoughtful and capable of having these civil discussions as you are. And if they aren’t: simply pause the conversation and direct them to this article before you press play again, because I need the hits and you can’t handle the emotional turmoil that is a screaming liberal/conservative/family member you see twice a year, but would rather never see again. I’m just saying it’s worth it to have constructive conversations as opposed to creating dramatic familial rifts over the holidays.

Remember always that you have so much to learn. It doesn’t matter how old or experienced you are. Keeping an open mind is the only way to make the world a ~better place~ for all of us.


I hope you learned something from this article and refer back to it when you need to center yourself or laugh or cry about the state of our nation.

Remember, you are the future.