How to Have a Civil Discussion About Divisive Issues

How to Have a Civil Discussion about Divisive Issues FinalI made the decision long ago to slash my media intake, and I’ve never looked back. It’s not that I abstain entirely. Since my chosen professional and family obligations meant I never had a ton of time for it to begin with, I simply became much more selective. In particular, I had no patience for the irate, drama-inducing screaming matches that had begun taking over the airwaves. For years now people have bemoaned the coarsening of public discourse (and with it, general behavior), and experts have been analyzing its cause. Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Righteous Mind, is a clear example. How did we come to a place of perpetual mouth foaming? While I won’t delve into that particular swamp, I will take up the flip side of that coin today, which has been on my mind lately (maybe on many people’s minds). What primal principles can help us remember how to have a civil discussion about divisive issues?

Sure, vitriol isn’t a new phenomenon. Human history is riddled with grave examples of hateful speech and its consequences. Still, it’s interesting to hear fuming behavior described as “caveman” or “uncivilized.” Is this a fair way to look at it? Were Grok and his kin really rock-throwing brutes, or would they likely show up us “moderns” in their adherence to relative order and harmony? In other words, how much is civility really dependent upon civilization?

What would Grok really do in the midst of dissension? From what we can ascertain, there was likely more inter-band flux than there was intra-band fighting. If you weren’t happy with how things were going in one group, you had the choice of moving to another. But if the problem was your own hotheadedness, you’d likely be called to account at some point. When daily survival was at stake, disunity wasn’t a workable option.

As a result, bands lived elaborate codes that prioritized the harmony of the group. Social structure was egalitarian. Conflict was settled within the group with a mind toward traditional order, historical precedent and cultural/cosmological principle.

Among the in-depth observations of recent historical hunter-gatherer groups, it’s been noted that such egalitarian groups took great time in making decisions that might raise conflict or otherwise divide the group. The process by which a decision was made was treated as more important than the ultimate decision itself. Members casually mentioned personal impressions with no immediate response rather than wrangle ad nauseam over their insisted beliefs.

It’s an intriguing model for considering everything from assessing leadership to deciding life changes, from discussing health issues to fielding criticisms of our Primal choices.

With this model in mind, let’s lay out some principles for civil conversation.

Tune out the extraneous emotion

The old, milquetoast proposal, “Why don’t we all just calm down?” might seem like a tricky suggestion when divisive issues are on the table, but behavioral studies suggest present moment anger can exacerbate our perceived polarization of viewpoints. Anger feeds division—probably not a crazy claim, given its power in battle cries across all centuries and regions.

Ask what mindset and emotion you’re bringing to a discussion, and be aware of what others seem to bring to it. Know there’s a time and place, and that means not when folks are whipped up about any manner of issues.

Assess the importance of proving your point

We’re not talking here about following what you believe—we’re talking about making other people buy into it, too. Are you really so committed to convincing everyone that grains are unhealthy that you’ll sacrifice relationships within your family to do it?

Do we really need everyone around us to be of the same mind on any given issue, including primal health? Can we learn to stand in our own beliefs without demanding others change for us or even understand why we think what we do? In all but the most dire and direct survival circumstances, Grok would’ve put group unity above personal agenda.

Speak solely for yourself

We all remember at some point hearing about “I statements”—ways of phrasing our opinions as our personal beliefs rather than universal truths. If you tell friends at dinner that their thick-soled or heeled shoes are ruining their postural alignment, that’s different than sharing how wearing minimalist footwear has made a difference in your back pain and racquetball game. (You’ll also probably have a better time that night and get invited again next time.)

Likewise, drop any group identification, which only fans the flames of outrage. Accept that this discussion is about the other person(s) present, and that’s it. When we converse as individuals, we can still relate as people. When we converse as representatives of groups, it’s all too easy to dehumanize the other.

Even if you’re operating from science, and the other person is grasping at straws, you’re better off saying that what you read about x, y and z helped convince you to make certain choices, rather than arguing about what the other person needs to do. Promote your success rather than dictate the other person’s behavior.

Make a personal commitment to equanimity

Research demonstrates that even when we acknowledge a degree of uncertainty about a belief or choice, we are likely to lock into our position if we feel emotionally threatened by the attitude of the other.

People don’t respond well to dominance or threat, and some people have a hair trigger for these perceptions. (I’m sure we all can identify some of these people now.) If your agenda is to make someone angry or defensive, then by all means come off subtly or overtly as threatening their intelligence, intentions or integrity.

If, however, you want to actually be heard, commit to keeping your cool regardless of their mood. There’s nothing more powerful than disarming a person’s hostility with your own self-possessed example.

When appropriate, appeal to sadness and tragedy

Researchers have affirmed what I think we all can intuit—tragedy brings us together, and sadness encourages mutual identification, problem-solving and support. It’s important to note that the crux of this appeal is shared feeling—not directed blame. Whether you’re talking about health issues, family conflict or social concerns, focus on what happened and what positive steps can prevent additional hurt, damage or loss.

Give the conversation space

Hunter-gatherers weren’t in the big fat hurry we all are today. As in the aforementioned decision-making example, they knew how to exercise patience. Learn to see persuasion as a gradual, dynamic, interactive process rather than single-session business.

Reframe your agenda as sharing your experience and planting a seed in the other person’s psyche. Persuasion isn’t equivalent to submission.

Let your life be your statement

You can’t really talk about discussing divisive issues without hitting up against the question, “Does it really help to even discuss it at all?”

Sometimes we don’t have a choice. We’re navigating a work or family issue that can’t be swept under the rug. Other times, however, it’s a subject we can realistically let go.

Even (and maybe especially) if you consider yourself a lifelong debater or activist, ask yourself how much time and energy you are willing to give a particular conversation. Base this assessment on the likelihood that you’ll get what you’re gunning for. (And then ask if getting that will result in any real gain or if it’s more an exercise in control.)

The thing with time and energy is this: you don’t get them back. Sure, there’s another hour and eventually another surge of stamina—but not the ones you’ve already given away.

It may be my later years talking here, but I tend to think people often do well by conserving their time and energy more for their own commitments than they do surrendering them to move other people in their direction. Not only do you enjoy the chance to actually accomplish something tangible with that parcel of time and energy, but you’ve also preserved something of your own peace and sanity by forgoing the Sturm and Drang of conflict.

At issue here is the thoughtful—and increasingly rare—distinguishing between effective persuasion toward a measurable and meaningful result and indulging in high emotion for its own sake.

When we focus too much on other people and demand their adherence, action or even understanding as a condition for our own happiness, we’ve set ourselves up for misery and disappointment. Why impose that on ourselves?

The most civil thing we can do—for ourselves and others—is often to discern what needs to be addressed and what doesn’t. There’s an essential humility and perhaps primal astuteness in learning to be selective. Our ancestors had a better understanding of what was worth getting one’s dander up about because there was less room for ire (and error) in their world. Perhaps if we redefine our priorities today, we might find the same for ours.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. I’d love to hear your thoughts on keeping discussions civil even around thorny issues. Have a great end to your week.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

27 thoughts on “How to Have a Civil Discussion About Divisive Issues”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Agree with Mark…time and energy are valuable. For me, watching TV and trying to convince people to do anything they don’t want to do are both a waste of my time and energy. Best advice of all…let your life be your statement. Words to live by!

  2. Considering the political discussions that are floating around recently, these series of tips can definitely come in handy!

  3. I think the point about speaking solely for oneself is spot on. The more you try to make universal declarations, the more people feel like they’re being proselytized to, and the more their eyes glaze over (or widen in defense). It’s better to share the benefits of your experience rather than make prescriptions.

  4. Definitely agree with letting your life be your statement. Not that there isn’t a time to discuss divisive issues, but there are plenty of times a topic is better left unaddressed and better lived instead.

  5. I used to be pretty big into researching “Conspiracy Theories”. I had a period of 3 months where I would come home everyday from work and just research fringe topics that interested me. I came to many conclusions based on my own judgment, common sense and instincts. There’s a point when the word coincidence cannot be used anymore to explain something. With that being said, it quickly becomes obvious that convincing other people of some of these things is impossible, unfortunately due to cognitive dissonance and an endless amount of disinformation. People don’t rationally think when you throw something at them that goes against everything they believe. Why is this important? Because unfortunately as many know to well, the medical/health field is filled with dogma pushed by lobbyists for the most part. (To say the least)

    As of right now, I don’t research anything conspiracy related (Except health topics), and I avoid ALL news completely for the most part. Especially politics, it just fills your head up with non-sense, because that’s all politics really is.

    Along my path I was fortunate enough to have a couple psychedelic experiences which really opened my mind, and has helped me move forward spiritually and begin understanding myself more and more. I felt that perhaps changing the way I eat would ultimately allow me to become closer with myself, and perhaps be more in tune with my natural self. So far after 3-4 months of being a Modern day Hunter Gatherer and being particular with my food choices I believe it is working very well. I am completely fat adapted and eat 2 meals a day and absolutely love being liberated from my old way of eating. Mainly my depression is gone…. and I believe I can associate that depression to a sensitivity to Gluten and just processed crap. Best of all, like you said in the book Mark, my body is saying THANK YOU for what I am consciously choosing to put into my body.

  6. “Persuasion isn’t equivalent to submission” That’s an EXCELLENT point! If more of us kept that in mind, there would probably be a lot less contentious fighting when it comes around touchy subjects. I think it’s the concept of winning and dominance that keeps a lot of people locked in non-productive discussions.

    1. Yes. Some people need to be “right” at all costs, even when they’re totally all wet. They are threatened by someone else’s opinion when it differs from their own, even when they don’t know what they’re talking about, and they would rather eat razor wire than apologize, even when they are so wrong that it’s laughable. What IS it with such people? Life is too short to be lived within such narrow inflexible parameters.

  7. First of all, thanks for making use of words that necessitate my use of a dictionary (~4 times). (If that sounds ironic, it isn’t.)

    My first thought was that I want to remember to use your advice with a spirit of honesty more than expediancy (or equal degrees both). I want to lead by example, but without en expectation of people following.

    Regarding the juxtaposition of civilized and caveman-like, I think propaganda, spin doctors, and debate club (I wanted to come up with a third thing) seem like civilization phenomenons.

  8. Gee, I wonder what prompted Mark to write this article? 🙂

  9. Good advice for many situations. But in terms of the current political situation, it is too late. It is one of the most important elections in U.S. history. Without saying what my position is, I have no interest in sitting down with those on the other side and talking. I would not want to be anywhere near them.

    1. You have my sympathies as I sit in England watching our own political ‘spectacular’.

      Another point I’d like to add to Mark’s list is this, in respect of familial discord (in my case between my parents and myself)…

      … sometimes accepting you will never be heard and accepting this and walking away forever, whilst not destroying yourself with guilt, is the sane solution. There are some unresolved issues one can’t live with so choosing not to in order to recover your own sense of worth and self-respect is the path to follow. Perhaps this is Grok walking out to find another band.

  10. Divisive issues and people are more pronounced in times of Depressions, which most native peoples never experienced. We have been in a Depression since 2008 and people are generally more pissed off than usual. 60 million on food stamps right now, which is about 1 in 5 people. No long soup kitchen lines running around the block today…just EBT cards sent thru the mail. It’s all very well hidden except for the several camping cities all over the U.S A. Look back toi the 1860’s, another Depression. The 1930’s, etc.
    See Robert Prechter’s work on Socionomics. A brilliant tretise on the subject. It’s very difficult to stop the negative mass psychology that takes hold during Depressions.

    1. Ancient hunter-gatherers would likely have faced long periods of deprivation: famines, droughts, mass die-offs of prey animals… Stuff happens, just as it always has. And yes, stress can affect our interactions. Just ask any married couple with financial problems.

    2. A depression? We are no longer even in a recession. In 2008 the unemployment rate was 9%, it is now 5%. The Dow was 6700 it is now 17,000+. I know times are tough for many people, I get that, but I don’t think it’s useful to engage in hyperbole.

      1. Right, with a real unemployment at over 20%. Millions have quit the workforce altogether or can’t find anything but part time work. Underemployed, 60 million on food stamps…glad you are doing well, as I am. The Dow is all smoke and mirrors. You’ve been hoodwinked. Everything is still being propped up by 0% interest rates.

  11. I read The Wisest One in the Room a few months ago and my take away was that I shouldn’t assume I’m right (as I always have). It may well be the other person who is right. Or maybe that we are both partly right, or that neither is right. And further, as we can see with our discussions here at Mark’s, while dairy is good for me it is not good for you. That make it really hard to sound knowledgeable, but it’s closer to the case.

  12. Great post! I always take a neutral position, like, “Give me someone worth supporting and I’ll vote. I’m a political atheist.” Never disagree with someone or they will shut you out. If there is someone says something that you completely disagree with, don”t disagree. Simply ask. “Who told you that”? Nine out of ten times they cannot engage with logical thought because a narrow minded opinion is often based on purposefully misguided sound bites and not facts. The beast system of mass disinformation provides polarized viewpoints. It’s the old Roman strategy of divide and conquer. Will a Fox Watcher and an NPR Listener ever agree? Probably not because the one opinion is structured to contradict and vilify the other. Its easy to control minds that see black as black or white as white. Grey is for thinkers and thinkers are the enemy of the establishment. The open mind understands the truth is likely a shade of grey. True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know and to never engage a battle of wits unarmed.

  13. It took me a while to learn this, because I did have a lot of suppressed anger towards conventional wisdom for literally influencing my life in a horribly negative direction, along with millions of others (most who don’t even know that this is happening). I was angry about the wrongness of it all and the huge scale of this wrongness towards the masses. It didn’t help in the wrongness department that 99% of my coworkers are firm conventional wisdom believers AND that our business is patient care. Maybe it’s just me, but I found it really hard to have pedestrian emotions about CW advice that is technically mass murder (in the slow insidious suffering kind of way of course).

    But – I’ve learned to channel this energy in much more positive ways lately. And I’m tested regularly because my life is indeed becoming my statement! Everyone now notices that I do most things differently than convention, even the small things, and my results are also “different” than convention. So I now get challenged regularly with verbal bait….

    And most of the time, I now refuse to take the bait, which is a huge step for me. No tirades, no rants, no anger/frustration at the system (at least outwardly). I just let the differences stand out, and let the results speak for themselves, and tactfully change the subject or deflect the comments. And just go back to my work in peace. It was hard at first, but I realize I rarely got anywhere debating this stuff anyway, except maybe to a more stressful headspace.

    And ironically that seems to be making a stronger statement than anything I ever used to argue about!

  14. I see your point Mark, I just want to add a dimension to it. I think for a lot of people who have been oppressed, speaking up causes a lot of backlash as you are upsetting the norm. Even your article said “conflict was settled within the group with a mind toward traditional order, historical precedent and cultural/cosmological principle.”

    When you’re upsetting the historical precedent, (think racism, sexism, and any other oppressed group which are too numerous to name) it does more than ruffle feathers.

    When you’re making a social revolution, it’s more than civil arguments. Those that have been on top for so long feel very threatened, and those that have been oppressed are just saying they’ve had enough.

    Do you think your tips apply in this context? As a staunch intersectional feminist, the majority of the backlash is from those who should read this article! You wouldn’t want to read what these trolls have to say.

  15. I struggle with this when the personal stakes are high. I can let it go if a person wants to debate something that I disagree with, but actually don’t care too much about. How much money and energy should be spent maintaining a lawn comes to mind as an example.
    It’s harder for me when the issue is whether or not my mother, who is getting on in years, should be taking statins or not. I care about her longevity, and I want her grandchildren to know and remember her, so there is more urgency behind the discussion.

    1. I had a similar issue some years ago (21) when I left officer candidate school. I came home in fantastic shape and wanted everyone to feel as good as I did. My family didn’t appreciate my zeal and I was hurt. Especially since I credited diet over the intense physical demands. I consciously ate cleaner during my time there avoiding all liquids save water and eating only meat, veg, and some carbs from oatmeal and potatoes.

      Those hurt feelings affected me for the next twenty years because I never talked or walked my health realization because I wanted to keep the peace. Sacrificing my health to avoid conflict was stupid, I know.

      I would take the advice of this article and give it to my younger self, indeed. Now, especially with family and children, I’m living the example. Sadly, twenty years of horrible denial means my lesson reveal will be a lot slower. But it’s a process and I know to be careful about any emotion I give about the lifestyle.

  16. What a timely article. I struggle with this issue in my own family. We are very polarized over politics and religion in particular. It really hit me how bad we’d become when my brother and I actually sat down before Thanksgiving last year to brainstorm a list of dinner conversation topics that wouldn’t start arguments! Three things that help me stay calm are the realization that 1) people really want what’s best for each other but they just have sincere differences in how they believe that can be achieved, 2) you can only persuade people with the results in your life, and 3) when people disagree with you it isn’t necessarily a personal attack but a reflection of their life experiences and belief systems. This has helped me avoid draining conflict that can damage my family relationships. I now enjoy spending time with them much more by focusing on what we have in common.

  17. Dr. David Hawkins of ‘Power vs Force’ is interesting with regards to this issue. He says most of the perceived problems in the world fail to be resolved because human beings focus on the details, as opposed to the over-arching context. Problems ranging from global warming to long queues at the post office are not caused by the particularities of those situations ie pollution and bureaucracy, but rather are consequences of the big context, ie over-population of the human species on the planet. But that issue is way too difficult for anyone to go near. In Groks day, there were just less human egos to deal with. Less ego, less conflict, fewer problems.

  18. This article and all the opinions expressed are completley wrong and I disagree.

    Then again, I just took a calm pill – its all ok, carry on.