What’s happened to civil discourse and how can we improve it?

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Join host Sheelagh Caygill as she explores the obvious - and less obvious - trends and influences in communications, PR, and marketing. Also explored are writing and upping your game as a creator of prose. In this essential listen, she interviews senior comms pros and thought leaders to reveal insights you can incorporate into your work.

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Thought leaders on improving civil discourse

Shaking your head in dismay at the state of civil discourse is as common as putting salt on your food these days. But apart from trying to be good communicators and encourage respect, most of us – me included – do little about the ugly exchanges between groups and individuals that could and should do better.

Leading communicators and marketers share their thoughts and ideas on how to improve civil discourse so that we can have meaningful dialogue and move towards shared values and ideals. Like what they say? Please leave your own comments and ideas!

Being civil is essential to a pluralistic society

Inbound marketer Paul Davis, owner of Paul Davis Solutions in the US, believes civil discourse is a habit, and one that has to be developed by every generation.

“Being civil towards one another in discourse is essential to a modern and pluralistic society,” says Paul. “But we haven’t developed the habit of listening to each other and engaging in civil discourse recently.

“I think modern connections through social media and mobile technology are creating a dialogue playing field that has the potential to develop excellent habits of civil discourse. But we will have many learning experiences on the way. “

Do you really want to listen?

Linda Andross, Managing Partner at Apex PR in Toronto, thinks that people know in their heart/mind if they really even want to engage in civil discourse with someone.

If you are already planning what you are going to say, or how to counter or change the other person, then I think you don’t want to listen or discuss, you just want to tell.

Linda Andross

“Of course, most of us have experienced this and a few of us have behaved this way, too. But why? It seems like some people are eager to get in their opinions first and become aggressive right away without any respect for the other person,” observes Linda.

We need to show our respect for others. Right now that seems tough because we don’t have many good examples to look to unfortunately. We need to be shining a light on when we do see great examples of this!

Emma Leech, Director of Marketing & Advancement at Loughborough University, UK, makes an important observation about anger. She says that what feels like a universal global anger has eroded respect – which should be at the heart of civil discourse. Diminishing respect has been super-charged by the impact of fake news. This, in turn, makes it difficult to get people to stop, pause, listen, and reflect; but it’s crucial that we do if we are to make progress on the things that matter.

The devaluation of objectivity and evidence

I think a few trends are at play here. Firstly, we have more access than ever to channels that allow us to build communities of interests, advocates, and followers quickly and easily. Mass mobilization is just a click away. Commentary is free to all, easy and almost disposable.

Emma Leech

“Social media has given us all a voice – which is brilliant. But the reality is that it can also be used to galvinize fringe ideas within protected bubbles that simply reinforce, rather than discuss.

“It we only listen to those with the same viewpoints, what happens to perspective or our understanding of differences and how we can overcome them? Keyboard warriors simply log off and walk away; they don’t have to listen.

“Secondly, we’re all experts now, which means that objectivity and actual evidence is sometimes seen as less essential than a pithy soundbite or a great piece of video,” she elaborates.

“We need to recalibrate in terms of the importance of listening and analyzing and we need to be strategic in our focus,” adds Emma.

So how can we improve civil discourse?

Emma believes that communicators and marketers have a clear role to play.“We can’t ignore the power of a soundbite but we also need to focus on engagement, authenticity, and openness,” she explains. “We have to be open to listening to views we don’t agree with.”

Opening up opportunities for comment and debate, being thoughtful and respectful in our responses (despite the temptation not to be!) and building face to face into the mix will help.

We have to deal with the trolls, and we have to seek opportunities to better understand opposing views. That’s the right thing to do and it’s good business strategy.

Emma Leech

A sense of powerlessness and frustration with the political system

Another UK-based communicator, Sarah Waddington, owner, Astute.Work, touches on the connection between austerity and a feeling of powerlessness in that country.

“This has created tension within UK society. Brexit became the means of expressing frustration with the political system. It’s created more division, further polarizing opinions and stifling debate. Better communication is the only way forward,” Sarah emphasizes.

The ability to discuss things constructively and politely has been completely eroded. We must find a way to have structured conversations that tackle root issues in safe spaces.

Sarah Waddington

The current trend for personal attacks is destructive; everybody’s opinion is valid and should be respected. Shouting at someone never changed anyone’s opinion on anything, adds Sarah.

Potentially damaging and socially unacceptable views pervade

Author and communications professional Fiona Fenwick has worked in communications for more than 30 years. She’s witnessed many changes in how we communicate and the relative effectiveness of new technology in assisting us to do so.

Based in New Zealand, Fiona observes that instantaneous technology through social media platforms has given us opportunity to learn more quickly and, one could argue, allow ourselves to enhance our understanding of things that affect us.

“However, to allow civil discourse to play an effective role requires respect. A downside of how we communicate today is that opinions can be readily shared with little regard for repercussions and accountability,” Fiona explains.

The keyboard warrior is alive and well. Although we have greater and wider social discourse, we are also allowing potentially damaging and socially unacceptable views to pervade

Fiona Fenwick

“We are also more inclined to seek our own ‘sound echo’s’ to reinforce what we believe. We therefore eliminate any possibility of challenge from alternate views,” she adds.

How can we improve our understanding and respect of others? Fiona says one way is to challenge leaders and raise expectations of what we expect in terms of respect and understanding different views.

We can aim for tolerance of disparate views when the ultimate common goals are similar. Let’s encourage our young to have a voice and respect that others do too. It’s time to use the tools that technology has provided us to develop constructive and positive dialogue for good.

Fiona Fenwick

Fiona sums up our current crisis with civil discourse with this quote: “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say,” Bryant McGill, author and thought leader.

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