Skip to main content


HomeCivil Dialogue

Civil Dialogue

What It Means and How to Engage In It

The Importance of Civil Dialogue

The meaning of civility can vary greatly depending on whom you ask. Its Latin root “civilis,” relates to citizenship and giving of oneself for the greater good. Essentially, taking part in a functional society means living and interacting with people you may not agree with. Everyone has a choice as to how and when they interact with others with whom they disagree.
Accordion Widget

 Civility may often include, but is not the same as, decorum. In fact, civil dialogue may produce heated and somewhat impolite debates at times.


Dialogue demands that there be an open and engaged discussion. That does not mean that both sides have to agree at the end. And nobody has to win or lose; dialogue is not a contest. The goal of dialogue is to gain new perspectives and understanding about a particular issue, not to stigmatize those who don’t share your views. Civil dialogue opens a path to create a chance for people to work together toward something greater.

Accordion Widget

For marginalized and minority groups, "civility" has sometimes been a mechanism used by the powerful to oppress and silence dissent, thus promoting the status quo both in the past and today. Examples of this include tone policing, favoring “order instead of justice,” and siding with decorum over dialogue. These abuses of civility have been used to dictate how and when dialogue takes place – and even prevent it entirely.


An example is the civil rights movement, where those who objected to it deemed marching and boycotts uncivil. The women’s suffrage movement also experienced backlash due to feared disruption of order in the household. For these reasons, many are critical of the call for civil dialogue for fear of being silenced.

Accordion Widget

A common element of civil dialogue for some groups is having to educate the participants in a discussion. Civil dialogue and education are inherently two separate things, but they do have some overlap. Educating others on an issue can take additional patience, mental effort, time, and emotional labor. This can become tiring and frustrating. Additionally, some may feel it is not worth engaging with certain opinions or even acknowledging them.


Although civility relies heavily upon respectful dialogue, some conversations may not be productive or constructive. For example, you may not wish to engage with a white supremacist about racism because it might appear to be a waste of time. Thus, people may wish to be selective about engaging, in order to avoid potentially unproductive or harmful conversations.


Bridging gaps and gaining understanding call for open exchange of ideas, but certain situations and beliefs may make a dialogue inadvisable. 

How Do You Engage in Good Civil Dialogue?


How do we engage in good and productive conversations, especially on politically divisive issues where there tends to be disagreement or where people feel very passionately? What are some good ground rules? It is important to practice good civil dialogue with those who have opposing views, in order to have a fruitful conversation. That does not necessarily mean practicing decorum, although that is often helpful.


Here are some ground rules to take into account when engaging in dialogue:



Instead of asking “How can you believe that?” or “Why would you ever think something like that?”, rephrase your questions with “What...”. For example: “What brought you to this conclusion?” It is less likely to put people on the defensive, and it allows them to share their perspectives without feeling attacked. Asking good questions show that you’re actively listening, which makes people feel heard and more likely to do the same for you.



Try to find a shared reality, a space where each party recognizes common ground even when they have differences. Finding shared beliefs creates an opportunity to work toward a constructive conversation and a mutually acceptable solution. Be sensitive to someone else’s experiences. You may even find you will agree with their point.



Understand that it’s not a contest, and you are likely not going to change anyone’s mind in one conversation. Additionally, recognize that people may not be completely wrong or completely right. Issues are often complex and require nuance. Also remember that sometimes you might be wrong, and that’s part of the process. Be willing to challenge your own preconceived notions, and be ready to listen to a different perspective.


When engaging in civil dialogue, challenge ideas, not a person’s character. Deescalate your language and refrain from name-calling or political labelling, so as not to put people on the defensive. Allowing people a graceful retreat from a position is always a better strategy than backing them into a corner. Focus on the issue at hand, and don't veer into politics. There may be times, however, when a statement is patently racist, discriminatory, or offensive. Addressing the impact and historical ties of a certain argument is encouraged, but make sure to continue to focus on the issue at hand. You may need to save larger, historical, or complex issues for later discussions. In some circumstances where a person’s character is the issue, such as qualifications for appointed office, consider referring to specific examples of the person's behavior, rather than making general statements.



Facts are extremely important to any position. However, it is also imperative to listen to people’s reasons for their opinions; this may help you gain a better understanding of their beliefs. Remember, it is okay to disagree with someone, but it can be beneficial to try to understand why they may think a different way. Personal experiences and fears lead people to believe and support certain arguments. If you know a statement is factually incorrect, take the time to explain the reality of a situation without discounting the other person’s experience. 



Conversations with people of differing views can often be difficult and uncomfortable. Realize when a discussion stops being constructive, and know that it’s okay to walk away at that point. Discomfort and tension are natural and likely products of tough conversations; working through these emotions to address important issues is essential to civil dialogue. Nevertheless, understand the distinction between healthy and unhealthy discomfort. Walk away at any time you feel physically threatened or unsafe. However the conversation ends, make sure to express gratitude to the other person for taking time to engage in conversation. Reflect on the new perspective you may have gained.

The sections above were adapted with permission from the Political and Civic Engagement program at Indiana University (with some tweaks). They were based on publications from Colorado State University’s Center for Public Deliberation and the Kettering Foundation.

Accordion Widget
Democratic Deliberation, Dialogue, and Debate
Democratic Deliberation, Dialogue, and Debate

According to the Kettering Foundation’s Framing Issues for Public Deliberation (2002), “The goal behind deliberation is not merely to draw a crowd and fill a room with opinionated people. The purpose is much bigger and more powerful. When citizens deliberate about an issue and when a community has a habit of asking citizens to make choices, the directions that are chosen often are better and they have a legitimacy that simply doesn’t exist otherwise.”

Debate is a contest. Dialogue is conversation focused on increasing understanding. Deliberation includes dialogue, but it goes further. Deliberation is conversation to make a choice about how to act together. Often, however, audiences are not ready to deliberate, due to insufficient understanding and trust. In such cases, dialogue would be more productive. The critical point is to understand which problem situations are best addressed by debate, which are best addressed by dialogue, and which are ready for deliberation.

Accordion Widget
How Can We Moderate Democratic Deliberation Effectively?
How Can We Moderate Democratic Deliberation Effectively?

Moderating is essentially about supporting a productive, respectful conversation that helps participants better understand the issue and each other. Learning the craft takes repeated experience and practice.


Here are some characteristics of a good moderator:


LAYS OUT WHAT THE GROUP NEEDS TO AGREE ON FOR A DISCUSSION. Participants should enter a conversation on the same page with regard to respect and goals. The ground rules for civic dialogue are great examples of guidelines to be agreed upon by the group before deliberations start.


REMAINS IMPARTIAL ABOUT THE SUBJECT OF THE FORUM. Avoid expressing your own opinion or evaluating the comments of the participants (be careful with saying “good point!”). However, moderators are not disengaged, and in fact they should be passionate about democracy and about the process itself.


MANAGES THE ROOM WELL Work with the participants so people know the order of speaking and do not get frustrated with procedural issues. Find the right balance between having too much and too little structure to the conversation.


MODELS DEMOCRATIC ATTITUDES AND SKILLS By exhibiting strong listening skills and asking good questions, you can model the behaviors you are hoping the participants will develop.


DOES NOT TAKE ON AN “EXPERT” ROLE WITH THE SUBJECT MATTER. Your role is not to teach the participants about the issue - even if it is a subject you know very well. Moderators in particular need to think like non-experts in the room, and if jargon is used, ask for clarification.


KEEPS THE DELIBERATION FOCUSED ON THE KEY CONCEPTS RELATING TO THE TOPIC. When comments go astray, bring participants back to the issue.


LISTENS FOR VALUES THAT MOTIVATE A PARTICIPANT’S COMMENTS. In deliberation, the participant’s values and motives are just as important, if not more so, than their opinions. Sometimes people with different opinions share the same motive or value, and that similarity can form the basis for common ground.


INTERVENES AS NECESSARY. If the conversation begins to focus on personalities rather than issues, gently remind the group of guidelines or refocus the dialogue back to the issue. An effective moderator creates an atmosphere of acceptance of all ideas and persons, and helps give an equitable hearing to all choices.


ASKS CLARIFYING QUESTIONS, IF NECESSARY. If you are not sure what a participant means, chances are good that others are unclear also. You may ask participants to clarify what they are trying to say and ask if you have understood correctly [if absolutely necessary, but be aware that people can get the impression that they are not being articulate].


ENCOURAGES EVERYONE TO JOIN IN THE CONVERSATION. Be careful. Comments like “that’s a good idea” may make the speaker feel welcome in the conversation, but participants who disagree may think you are being biased.


ASKS THOUGHTFUL AND PROBING QUESTIONS TO DISCOVER COSTS AND CONSEQUENCES.  Make sure that the participants have considered the potential outcomes of their comments. Help draw out what people are willing to accept and what they are not.


HELPS PARTICIPANTS FIND COMMON GROUND AND THEN IDENTIFY AND WORK THROUGH KEY TENSIONS. Participants will not always agree and may be in direct conflict with each other. Helping them identify both common ground and key tensions can move the conversation forward in important ways.


ENCOURAGES DEEPER REFLECTION. Ask participants to share what is important to them about the issue or why they feel a particular approach is valuable.


Moderators are crucial to the longevity of our democracy. With help from trained, impartial moderators, citizens, not just experts or politicians, can be deeply involved in public decision-making and problem-solving through effective democratic deliberation.

The final two sections were adapted by Kyra Mahoney (a student member of LWV-BMC, 2021-2023) from information on the website of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota with their permission.

Click Here to View PDF