4 Levels of Civil Discourse


Most of us, I’ve realized, aren’t taught how to own our voice in ways that elicit healthy discourse. But I’ve also learned we each can change that.

If you’re a conversation leader, creative, blogger, business owner – anyone who might have influence if and how you voice your views – consider this:

How is as important as what. When it comes to having a healthy influence, how you express your views on important issues is as important as the content of your views.

If you want the take-aways without the personal story – or your own reflection – skip to the end.

A Vision without a Voice

When I was a boy, no one talked about ideas as I recall. It was not like what Teddy Kennedy described growing up in which the only way to get his father’s attention at the dinner table was to have something substantial to say on an issue.

My father watched the Watergate trials on a hotel tv while we vacationed in Mexico, much to my mother’s chagrin. I watched Nixon resign on my grandparents’ television while my mother cried. But otherwise no one voiced any political or social views.

I didn’t know how to hold a conversation, think well, tell a story, or take a stance. We basically had one allowable emotion in the family – happy. Which meant we buried a lot of unspoken anger.

I grew up shunning people with strong views and closed off around any dispute. When I defended my master’s thesis, my committee of professors praised my written thesis for its depth and nuance, but as they asked me question after question I could not “think on my feet” or defend it. I shut down. One professor with a fierce reputation looked almost remiss in grilling me and then tried to help me with the process.

“It’s a fine thesis, Jeffrey. Really. We have to ask you these questions, though,” he said. “It’s not personal. We just want to hear you articulate your position.”

It was foreign turf, and that embarrassment became a private call-to-action.

I had vision with no voice, but I was ready to change that. And you can, too.

Voice Lessons

Part of growing up again in my twenties meant owning my anger on a number of matters, and from that anger learning to voice my views even if I risked being “wrong” or looking foolish. I learned to channel that anger into a guard dog fierceness at times to defend other people. I was an imaginative, emotional, intuitive, dreamy kid, but I immersed myself in how to think critically and write arguments. At the same time I was teaching undergraduate students tactics to do the same.

Any leader worth her salt, I’m thinking, must own and channel her anger at some point.

One course was a night course packed with people 10, 20 years older than I. These were people with real issues, real jobs, and real situations in which they didn’t know how to voice their views, defend themselves, or change the actions of people in power – bosses, phone companies, insurance companies, local governments, their children’s school administrator, their managers and co-workers.

Basically, it was a course in thinking, empathizing, writing, researching, and communicating. It was rigorous, and I loved teaching it.

One night after class, a woman, maybe 48 or so, walked up to me. I was all of 27, bright-eyed, smiling, and armored.

“I just want you to know,” she said, struggling to speak. “This is hard. This is the hardest class I’ve ever taken.” She paused, and then she started crying. “I’ve never been taught to think this way,” she said. “No one has ever asked me what I think.” She tried to recompose herself. “You’re the first person, certainly the first man, to ever ask me what I think and who even cared. And now you want me to think and write this way, and it’s just hard.”

We sat down and talked a little longer. I doubt at the time I told her what I told you – about my also not being taught how to think that way. At the time, I rarely talked about myself to students. It seemed counter-intuitive. Instead, I encouraged her, showed her her progress, assured her we all struggle with this. Something lame but genuine, I’m sure. She passed the course and told me later it was also the best course she ever took.

4 Levels of Civil Discourse

And I realize now that most of us do struggle to voice our views. I once posted something on Facebook about what I view as four levels of civil discourse. It seems worth sharing here in more detail.

You likely generate content for your business or brand. You post on social media for your business or brand or your personal feeds. You give talks, or you talk with people. All of these actions mean you have influence. And how you engage people with your views can also influence how they in turn engage other people with their views.

In these uncivil times, it seems especially necessary that you rise in whatever small or large way as a conversation leader, creative, or business artist and encourage healthy levels of discourse.

Here goes.

Rant: The rant is emotional, one-sided, name-calling, divisive. It’s marked by being verbally violent. It’s described in some dictionaries as being “wild.”

The rant is cathartic for the ranter & “the choir.” It just feels good to rant, yes, and other people who agree with your rant will cheer you on in your preaching. Because of our romance with “the wild,” we might mistake a rant as being more “authentic” than being measured, kind, thoughtful, and respectful.

The danger of the rant is it’s indicative of a “post-factual era,” and it’s spurred by an onslaught of headlines, posts, quips. It rarely if ever changes attitudes or actions.

It’s easy to get caught in the Rant Trap. You start ranting about how other people are always ranting. And then they rant back at you for ranting. And, I know you are, but what am I?

Being blunt is not always being true. You deserve better.

Rational Argument: At its best it’s evidence-based and is not aimed to win but to communicate and create common ground. At its best, it builds a more coherent case that informs and educates based on a fair assessment of different points of view, but is almost always naturally skewed to the arguer’s preconceived biases.

True, reasoning and argument and logic have been used for centuries to manipulate; so, we understandably distrust these ways of thinking. But to decry the intellect and throw out all critical thinking with the “authentic” bathwater is denying some of our greater human gifts of cognition. Because of our own cognitive biases, we will sometimes ignore all evidence that does not reinforce our biases and prejudices.

We’re funny mammals.

“This is hard,” as that wise student said all those years ago, but that doesn’t mean we should discard the activity.

Story (& other art): At its best, story and art awaken the imagination & empathy. They provide coherent meaning and cross boundaries of biases. They get intimate. At their best they aim to elevate and not manipulate. They begin the openings on all sides.

Consider Patricia Smith’s performance poem “Skinhead.

Conversation: A “turning with.” Conversation requires on all sides an ongoing openness, listening, dropping of defenses, questioning of one’s own assumptions & biases, genuine curiosity of the other with the intent to connect and expand and elevate not denigrate.

We human beings need all 4 in different moments, but maybe this mini-guide helps me see at what level I’m operating on a regular basis. It also humbly reminds me that no one has a grip on Truth.

How does this help you see at what level you operate when creating content, owning your voice, taking a stance, or engaging on social media?

Contagious Conversations

I’ll close with this:

Imagine if we created contagious conversations – substantive conversations that went “viral” instead of hits and quips being spread like a disease that weakens our capacity to connect and not be at our best but bring out the best in each other?

What could happen then?


Jeffrey Davis connects with scientists, creatives, and thought leaders to discover how people can influence for the greater good in times of challenge and change. A speaker, consultant, founder of Tracking Wonder, and above all papa of two girls, he also is author of Coat ThiefThe Journey from the Center to the Page, and a number of guides to track wonder in work, art, and life. 

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