A Counselor’s Take On Civil Discourse

In such troubled political times, there’s an obvious need for civil discourse. Just glance at your social media page you’ll see how uncivil our discourse has become. As I reflect on how to improve the ways we talk to one another, I realize that many of the concepts I work on in couples counseling apply to ALL relationships, especially now.

I am reminded of the late Steven Covey’s admonishment to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This is perhaps one of the hardest things for us to do.

We are so enamored with our own talking points that we fail to hear what the other side is saying. Seeking to understand another’s position does not doom us to agreement. Rather, it opens us up to other possibilities or ways of thinking. We may still circle back to our original conclusion but at least we will do it from a place of understanding what may have brought our “opponent” to a different position than ours. Moreover, seeking to understand another person or perspective promotes psychological flexibility and this is something almost all mental health experts say makes us healthier people. As a counselor, I have a unique take on civil discourse.

An acronym I use often in my couples counseling is EAR—Empathy, Assertiveness, and Respect.

Dr. David D. Burns, MD, deserves the credit for this. I like to add “acceptance” to assertiveness because too often we fail to simply accept that someone else holds a different opinion and despite our best (or worse) efforts, they will not change. Before you lash into someone on social media or at your next dinner party, think EAR.

  1. Empathize with the other person’s humanity and recognize that there are many factors in their lives that have brought them to that position.
  2. Accept that they see the world differently than you do and assert your own position with the acknowledgment that it belongs to you—don’t overgeneralize.
  3. Respect their perspective. We lose no ground by engaging in respectful dialogue with another with whom we disagree. Demonstrating respect for their humanity and respect for their autonomy makes us better people and may even go a long way toward helping us achieve some common ground.

I’ve seen these principles work with many of my counseling clients, and I bet they will work next time you’re faced with someone whose ideology you oppose.

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