Understanding Violent Agreement and How to Have Civil Conversations In Tense Times

Understanding Violent Agreement and How to Have Civil Conversations In Tense Times | Jennifer Spoelma

We’re all tired of the shouting, polarization and unwillingness to listen that dominates our current politics and news. But what’s worse is how these things are seeping into our culture’s own communication practices. I hate the bind that this puts us in as humans.

We are communicators.

Communication is a major way we share value and connect with one another.

We should be able to connect and feel valued while discussing important social, political and religious issues just as we should while discussing our personal stories.

Unfortunately, as a culture, it seems we’re losing the skills to have healthy, respectful conversations. Or, we’re being taught that it’s not worth it to try. We assume conversations with people who may think differently than us won’t be productive, so we give up before giving it a chance.

Both of these possibilities are bad. But there is hope.

Many people are awakening to the reality that if something doesn’t change with how we communicate, we’ll have much bigger issues to deal with.

If we don’t change how we communicate, our issues will get bigger.

Feminine Foresight is my way of addressing the problem. I believe that the more we understand about communication--what makes it effective and where it breaks down--the better equipped we will be to create positive change in the world.

No matter what it is you are trying to create, solve or repair, if your communication skills are lacking your success will lack, too. This is true in relationships, businesses and social movements alike.

Skills build confidence. That’s why I take an educational approach to my content. It’s one thing to encourage you to go out and be a more kind and generous communicator, it’s a different things to actually teach you skills for how to do so.

When you can recognize a misunderstanding or communication breakdown while it’s happening and be able to calmly address it in the moment--you become a powerful force for good. So let’s get into it. Today we’re learning about two very important topics: violent agreement and civility.

Violent agreement is when you don’t see common ground because you’re too focused on being right.

Have you noticed how many people on opposing sides of emotionally-charged debates seem to be “shouting past” each other?

To an outside observer, you might be able to see that both parties actually have common ground. But the people involved in the debate have dug their heels in so much that they can’t see past their own perceptions, biases, and a deep-rooted desire to be “right.”

When this happens, it’s called violent agreement.

This is a very very common phenomenon. It happens with couples, in teams at work and in political debates.

For example, have you ever been in an argument with a family member that ended with someone stating, “That’s what I was trying to say all along!” That’s a good indicator you were in a violent agreement. Things got tense, and you were so sure that you were right and the other was wrong that you couldn’t understand their perspective clearly.

I experienced this type of misunderstanding when I launched Feminine Foresight.

When I first launched Feminine Foresight, some people didn’t understand my message and content. At the time, I was only publishing content to my newsletter tribe. It was a tribe of people who had mostly chosen to follow me when I was writing and launching my book, Tell It Well. Tell It Well was written specifically for a Christian audience and naturally attracted a more conservative audience.

I found out rather quickly that the name of my communication/leadership brand, Feminine Foresight, did not sit well with some of them. Feminine was too close of a word to feminism, and it brought on feelings of offense for some of my readers.

Personally, I didn’t, and do not currently, have an issue with being associate with feminism. I believe in and support feminism. And, I believe that many of the people who were unsettled by my content and responded to my emails also would support much, if not all, that feminism stands for.

However, feminism has become such a politicized word that there is significant confusion about what it stands for. The emails I received made it clear that there are deeply charged emotions, as well.

As a professional, this experience was one of the most hurtful misunderstanding experiences I’ve had. It hurt on a personal level. As I read the emails I saw so much common ground we shared. And yet, a handful of people were calling me out for betraying values they thought I stood for.

It was a confusing situation, and it took a long time for to process.

Thankfully, I was able to take the time I needed to process before responding. But that’s not always a luxury we have when we find ourselves in a heated conversation.

For those situations, it’s extremely helpful to have a few strategies for keeping conversations civil. Let’s dive into what it means to be a civil communicator.

Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.

The Institute for Civility in Government defines civility as, “Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.”

I love how that embodies the goals of effective, connected communication. In Brené Brown’s most recent book, Braving the Wilderness, she talks a lot about the courage needed to remain civil in heated conversations. In her language she calls it “speaking truth to bullshit”.

Civility is a crucial skill to develop because when you choose civility you both protect yourself while honoring others. Can you just imagine how much better the work would be if more people had this skill?!

Bless Brené because she put in the work to understand this skill backwards and forwards. Her research led her to develop the following list of guidelines for civil communication. She calls it BRAVING.

  1. Boundaries. What’s okay in a discussion and what’s not? How do you set a boundary when you realize you’re knee-deep in BS?

  2. Reliability. Bullshitting is the abandonment of reliability. It’s hard to trust or be trusted when we BS too often.

  3. Accountability. How do we hold ourself and others accountable for less BS and more honest debate? Less off-loading of emotion and more civility?

  4. Vault. Civility honors confidentiality. BS ignores truth and opens the door to violations of confidentiality.

  5. Integrity. How do we stay in our integrity when confronted with BS, and how do we stop in the midst of our own emotional moment to say, “You know what, I’m not sure this conversation is productive” or “I need to learn more about this issue”?

  6. Nonjudgement. How do we stay out of judgement toward ourselves when the right thing to do is say, “I actually don’t know much about this. Tell me what you know and why it’s important to you.” How do we not go into “winner/loser” mode and instead see an opportunity for connection when someone says to us, “I don’t know anything about that issue”?

  7. Generosity. What’s the most generous assumption we can make about the people around us? What boundaries have to be in place for us to be kinder and more tolerant? (Brown, p.113-114).

There are a few final things I want to leave with you on the topic of civil communication.

Beware of disregarding truth

It’s common for people to prioritize what they think and feel over actual truth. Beware of this tendency in others, but also be aware that you have similar biases. We all do. Keep yourself in check, and have grace when you notice others are speaking from bias. You can call them out on it, but do so with kindness.

Remember that some people just don’t know

We are in an information age, yes. But to the previous point, this doesn’t mean we all have the same, verifiable information. Recognize that some people may believe they are informed on social or political topics when in fact they are misinformed. Today, feeling uniformed can often be a point of shame. So be careful how you call people out when you believe they are misinformed. Offer them the curiosity of tact and you’ll do yourself a favor, too.

Have you ever experienced violent agreement? Do you have any tips to share for civil communication?