By Jennifer Honeycutt
Civility has been top-of-mind for many this past year. Faced with crises including a pandemic, a summer plagued by police brutality and the resulting calls for better regulation and oversight of policing, and an election that tested American democracy, the national climate has felt vitriolic. It was in this environment that the Public Relations Student Society of America released this year’s Bateman Case Study Competition challenge, tasking participant teams with developing campaigns that promoted civility in public discourse.
DePaul’s Bateman team, “The Awkward Team,” created a program titled, “Let’s Get Uncomfortable!” The event, an evening spent learning helpful tips for civil discourse and putting those tips into use in break out rooms, welcomed Bob Feldman, founder of The Dialogue Project, as keynote speaker. The Dialogue Project, a “research effort to explore what role business can play to help improve civil discourse and reduce polarization,” provided the perfect bridge between the task of promoting civility in public discourse and the importance of civility to the public relations field.
Feldman provided the following 10 tips for more effective discourse:
- “Take Winning Off the Table.” Feldman stressed the importance of sometimes coming into a conversation with the objective of understanding the other person or viewpoint better, rather than trying to convince the person we’re right.
- “Focus on what you’re hearing, not on what you’re saying.” “If you’re having a difficult conversation, focus on hearing. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say. First really listen because if you do that really well, if you passionately listen, you may say something quite different than what you were anticipating saying,” Feldman said.
- “Begin from a place of curiosity and respect.” Feldman noted, “I think, typically, if you demonstrate real respect and vulnerability, that tends to produce the exact same thing in the other person.”
- “Appreciate history, culture, and context.” Feldman noted that cultural and contextual differences can play a role in how people approach conversation and conflict. He emphasized the value of sensitivity to these factors and even doing a little research into the situations of people we have conversations with.
- “Display emotional intelligence.” “Try to really think about, when you’re talking to someone who has a different point of view, not only what that point of view is but why do they have it,” Feldman stated.
- “Recognize power.” Feldman mentioned that there are many dimensions to power structures in relationships, and that addressing and acknowledging these issues up front can lead to better conversations.
- “Make room to transform.” “I think if you don’t go into a conversation defensively, and you let yourself be open to change, good things can happen,” Feldman notes.
- “Approach the conversation as a positive.” “I would encourage you to think differently. I think these kinds of conversations can be a real positive. If you approach it with natural curiosity, with your emotional intelligence in place, I think you can view difficult conversations as an opportunity to learn, to build empathy, to build trust, and increase mutual respect.”
- “Agree to ground rules.” Here, Feldman gave some examples of potential ground rules for conversation: “Let’s always stay calm,” “No yelling,” “No name calling,” “No interrupting,” and “The conversation is over when we agree the conversation is over.”
- “Prioritize relationships.” “If you want the relationship to go well, if you want the conversation to go well, I think you need to learn to find ways to build trust and build empathy,” Feldman stated. This tip is two-part, also addressing the impact difficult conversations can have on family and friends. “It’s okay to have a debate about politics, but your relationship with your friends and your family is more important than any individual subject, whether it’s on politics or anything else.”
After learning these conversation guidelines, participants were placed into small break out rooms with discussion prompts on issues such as civil rights and the effects of the pandemic. Though these individuals were largely strangers going in, they were able to have productive, positive conversations they were excited to continue in the large group talk-back sessions. With these guidelines in place, participants were able to stay calm, learn from each other, and boost the messages of other participants.
Perhaps greater civility on the national scale can begin in the small conversations each of us has every day.