Plenty of ink has been spilled bemoaning the lack of civility in public discourse. Partisan fighting, discord, dehumanization, and just plain ugliness. The rancor is exhausting us culturally and damaging us relationally.
And it’s just not fun.
I’ve wondered and pondered and puzzled over the why-is-this and the how-did-we-get-here quite a bit over the last couple years. As with all aspects of public life, it’s an extension of the private life. And this is what I’ve come to believe: We don’t know how to have healthy conflict.
We are social beings who organize ourselves into families, communities, societies, and cultures. Since there have been groups of people, humans have discussed and debated in groups. From tribal circles to the Twitter feed, public discourse has been an important skill. For good or for ill, the digital world in general, and social media in particular, as the main street of public discourse is here to stay.
Family, friends, work all have a digital component—email, Slack, texting, posts, comments. Digital communication may be a newborn in history, but humans are ancients. Social media is an amplification of what happens around middle school lunch tables and office water coolers every day.
If we can’t have appropriate disagreements in the public arena, it means we don’t know how to do it privately. Public discourse is the extension of real, flesh-and-blood relationships. The people in your office, your spin class, your neighborhood, your biology lecture, your book club, your home. If those relationships lack healthy conflict, our public life doesn’t have a fighting chance!
Engaging in healthy interpersonal conflict is a skill, an absolute necessity for any relationship to function longer than a few days. The private backstage is where we rehearse and hone the skills needed to disagree with kindness and maintain relationships. Behind the scenes of our public life, we practice accepting a person completely without the need to agree with every thought in their heads or behavior they engage in.
If we cannot practice healthy conflict with those we love and who love us, how can we expect to have disagreement with those who are simply an avatar glowing in the blue light?
In my private and public life, I have made many a mistake. And as someone who doesn’t like to repeat pain, I try to learn from my failures, so I don’t repeat them! I hope I can offer some learning for you, too.
Although the deterioration of public discourse pains me, the inability to have healthy conflict in our real lives breaks my heart. To get better at public discourse, we must get better at interpersonal conflict IRL.
We cannot excel publicly at something we fail in privately for very long. We all seek connected, whole lives. Even for those people who prefer to have separate spheres, you cannot, for long periods of time, be healthy and be a different person in those spaces.
So, I offer you this four-part series on conflict resolution. Hopefully, you’ll find pick up some new tools to practice with before you open the curtain to the public stage.
(Congrats, you’ve almost finished with part one. You’re such an achiever!)
Don’t miss the remaining three:
- The Talk and The Truth: Myths about Conflict.
- Exchanging Fight or Flight: Healthy Responses to Conflict.
- Post or Not to Post: A Framework for Disagreeing in Digital Space.
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