Commit to civil discourse this holiday season

Published 6:00 am Monday, November 23, 2020

In this year of deep political division, it’s more important than ever to commit to civil conversation and understanding at the holiday dinner table, according to Professor Todd Schenk — originator of the Frenemies Project at Virginia Tech.   

“A frenemy is somebody that you really want to get along with — a long-term friend or a family member, someone you have to work with but don’t see eye to eye with,” said Schenk. “And that’s, of course, the case with many of us these days. We have these relationships where we just want to love each other but there’s something about the other person’s opinion that we don’t agree with.”

The Frenemies Project at Virginia Tech in the past focused on facilitated dialogue among those who might not agree. This year, amidst the pandemic, it took more of an internal direction, including workshops in residence halls and sessions on civil discourse and active listening.  

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Schenk offers these reminders, as ways to find common ground over the upcoming holidays. 

• Set aside time to specifically talk about important issues. “In other words, after the third glass of wine and everybody’s ribbing each other, probably not the best time to get into a really serious conversation if you want something productive to come out of it. Find some time, and it might sound silly with a family member or a close friend, but sometimes even agree to some ground rules.”

• “Be thoughtful in your verbal and non-verbal language. Acknowledge and understand the impact your verbal and non-verbal language have.”

• “Communicate respectfully, without interrupting the other side. Try to speak clearly and concisely, not dominate the conversation.”

• Actively listen.  “We can ask good probing questions, where we genuinely want to know the answer and we want to learn something that we didn’t already know and we’re ready to learn a different perspective on. And of course, with that is really being ready to listen.”

• Slow the pace down.  “Be careful not to make assumptions about the other side is really important.  Be ready to be open, and sometimes that can be really hard.”