If conversation sounds too risky, try reading a book

Rather than wearing ourselves down in difficult discussions, we can simply begin by regularly reading ideas we might not like.

At Civil Squared, we’re strong believers in the power of dialogue. Whether over coffee or Zoom, face-to-face conversation is the most effective way to bridge divides and learn from the other side. But often talking to people who don’t agree with you is risky, uncomfortable, and draining. We all have (ever dwindling) reserves of willpower these days.  

And now that we’re all becoming socially awkward, jumping into a polarized conversation isn’t always the right choice. Everyone involved can become triggered, defensive, and walk away more polarized than when the conversation started. If this sounds familiar, consider that there are other ways to help depolarize ourselves outside of conversation. Rather than wearing ourselves down in difficult discussions, we can simply begin by regularly reading ideas we might not like.  

Try reading a thoughtful article from a magazine or newspaper from the other end of the spectrum. Get a recommendation of a good book from a friend that disagrees with your politics. (But try to avoid clicking on that link shared by your high-school buddy who’s gone off the rails since 2016—that’s not good for anyone). 

Read with an open mind—as if you’re having a respectful conversation with the author. You might reap some of the same benefits as you would from an actual conversation, but without the relational risk. I can be done on your own time and is far less time consuming and difficult than preparing for a challenging talk with a loved one about a divisive issue. You might learn something new, or a better idea of how to bridge the divides in your relationships. 

Borrow some of the same principles that make for a productive conversation and apply them to your reading: 

  1. Approach the piece seeking to understand the point of view of the author or the subject of the piece, not to refute it immediately. Give the author the fair hearing you would want if you were explaining your position to them. 
  1. Note points of agreement, whether they’re arguments made by the author or just shared concerns or goals. You may disagree about how to reach them, but shared values are the first step in figuring out how to live with your disagreements.  
  1. Observe when something in the piece provokes you, and then ask yourself why. Exploring your own reactions may help you explain your values to others.   
  1. Write down what you learned at the end. It doesn’t have to be a responsive essay, but a few clear takeaways will solidify the value that you get from engaging in the exercise.  

Here’s the challenge: start with one piece a week and take one small step towards depolarizing yourself. Over time, maybe you’ll eventually have the confidence to take the next step into a civil conversation.  

Photo by GalakticDreamer on Adobe Stock