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August 03, 2022

Establishing Conversation Norms and Defusing Conflict

The key to any productive public, civil conversation is ensuring all participants follow a set of expectations and norms. As the program planner, you can certainly set some norms ahead of time, but you may also allow for time at your events for participants and the audience to work together to set a list of agreed upon norms.

This list of suggested norms can help keep your conversation civil and meaningful. You should tailor the specific norms for your conversation to meet the needs of your community and objectives.

  • Show respect for the views expressed by others, even if you strongly disagree.
  • Keep comments brief and on point so that all who wish to participate in the conversation have a chance to do so.
  • Direct your comments to the group as a whole rather than to any one individual.
  • Don’t let disagreements or conflicting views become personal. Name-calling and shouting are not acceptable ways of conversing with others.
  • Let others express their views without interruption. Facilitators and moderators should seek to give everyone a chance to speak or respond to someone else’s comments.
  • Remember that a frank exchange of views can be fruitful as long as you observe the rules of civil conversation.

Conversations about controversial topics—particularly related to politics—can devolve into intense disagreement and argument, resulting in tense conflict. There are many tactics and strategies that can defuse tension in a conversation before it becomes overheated.

  • Stay calm, pause, take a breath before responding — Taking a moment to pause, regulate your emotions, and respond in a rational way without saying something rash or hurtful can defuse a tense situation.
  • Find common ground by speaking specifically to a point the other person has made that you agree with — No matter how much you think you disagree, you can always find a point of agreement, even if it is something broad about reducing violence, eliminating poverty, wanting what is best for the country and the world. Finding common ground can help a conversation maintain its civility or bring a conversation back to a shared understanding.
  • Note any points that the person made in the conversation that taught you something — Even if you disagree with the overall argument, demonstrating that you have learned something shows that you value the conversation and are listening to the views of others. It fosters trust and allows the conversation to continue with a mutually respectful tone.
  • Frame disagreements in a way that shows you are committed to a collaborative conversation and that you welcome the opinions others — Share the information and ideas that shape your thinking but keep an open mind as to why people might disagree. Attempt to identify the root of your beliefs as another way of finding common ground.
  • Be open to feedback and ask genuine questions — A genuine openness to the input of others can help you remain calm and respectful—and encourage the same response from others.