The Character Movement

Students having productive small-group conversation on a Kindness Retreat

Seven Civil Conversation Skills to Use When You Disagree

Everyone wants to be heard, from kids, to grown-ups, to long-lost relatives across the holiday table. But too often, we steer clear of the issues we really care about, hovering instead on weather patterns and sports news.

These days, even those issues can feel risky.

Every topic worth discussing carries the risk of conflict, and we, as a society, seem to be losing our knack for disagreement.

Doing Good Together™ believes that facing disagreements with heart and curiosity is a crucial skill to teach our children and ourselves.

Thoughtful, back-and-forth conversations are more than just an exchange of ideas. Conversations about issues that matter can actually strengthen our relationships, as we gain understanding and insight into the beliefs of others. They give us new perspectives on which to base future decisions. They give us an opportunity to learn from and with those around us.

What’s more, the ability to have civil conversations and thoughtful disagreements is crucial to a strong civil society.  As Adam Grant recently wrote in the New York Times,

“If no one ever argues, you’re not likely to give up on old ways of doing things, let alone try new ones. Disagreement is the antidote to groupthink. We’re at our most imaginative when we’re out of sync. There’s no better time than childhood to learn how to dish it out – and how to take it.”


In this age of divisiveness, disturbing headlines, and excessive devices, strong communication skills are more important than ever. Let’s make time to practice these skills as a family.

Here are seven conversation skills your family can begin practicing right now.

I’m including tips for teaching younger kids, who are learning the fundamentals of conversation, as well as tips for tweens and teens, who need the opportunity to refine and explore their own strong beliefs.

But to be clear, we all need more practice mastering these hallmarks of civil conversation.

1. Begin with respect.

Every civil conversation must begin in a place of mutual respect. Establish this directly before beginning a potentially divisive discussion. As in, “I already respect you as a parent, friend, student, teacher, etc.” If you can’t find any respectful common ground, don’t begin the conversation.

» With younger kids, practice respectful nonverbal cues. Make eye contact. Take turns speaking. And always use a respectful tone of voice. Encourage kids to try again whenever they speak in nagging, bullying or disrespectful tones.

» With tweens and teens, model and encourage them to begin any potential disagreement directly. I respect how you (treat others, volunteer, do good work, etc.), and I’m curious what you think about (the issue you’d like to get into).

2. Speak from the heart.

Steer your conversation toward personal experience, rather than learned talking points. If you are passionate about something, it’s likely you have (or know someone who has) a personal story about it. Sharing this story gives the other person insight into why you think the way you do.  Be sure to ask the other person why they feel the way they do.

Remind yourself, the goal is understanding, not a changed mind.

» With younger kids, practice storytelling. Ask kids to talk about a moment from their day when they felt a strong emotion. This gives them practice sharing poignant stories and gives you insight into their day. Or try our fun, printable story starters!

» With tweens and teens, practice getting specific. When discussing current events, tell stories about how these events impact you or people you know specifically. When they speak about something they care about, ask what experience they have had that leads them to that conclusion.

3. Listen to understand.

Understanding must be the number one goal when starting up a meaningful conversation about an important topic. Too often we think we know where someone is going with their ideas, and we stop listening. Communicating through interruptions and half thoughts stunts the conversation. Even worse, it changes the way you see each other, transforming a thoughtful dialogue into an adversarial battle. Popular media and combative news programs reinforce this tendency, role modeling volume and aggression in conversations rather than respect and curiosity.

» With younger kids, practice active listening. Teach turn-taking and curb interrupting with these charming tips from the Positive Parenting Connection.

»With tweens and teens, practice asking open-ended questions. Try asking:

» What do you think would happen if… (offer scenario)?

» Ideally, how would you solve this problem?

» Tell me more about that.

» Rephrase their last statement as a curious question.

4. Get used to being wrong.

Our risk-averse society is increasingly uncomfortable being wrong, but often in the course of impassioned conversations, we will find ourselves in a difficult position. We misremember. Or we contradict ourselves. Or we change our mind halfway through a sentence.  Heartfelt conversations offer an excellent opportunity to practice our resilience as we rebound from flawed ideas.

» With younger kids, practice correcting mistakes. Help kids get very comfortable with their mistakes. Encourage them to say I’m sorry. Forgive me. And I may be wrong.

» With tweens and teens, practice asking for advice.  When you find yourself in the wrong, take suggestions. Adam Grant encourages this conversation tool in his must-read book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. He tells us, “new research shows that advice-seeking is a surprisingly effective strategy for exercising influence when we lack authority.” It builds common ground and creates opportunity for compromise.

5. Don’t be afraid to disagree.

Yes, it’s important to curb our impulse to interrupt. For some of us, it’s just as important to get over the temptation to agree for the sake of getting along. If instead we practice standing up for our beliefs, we will get much closer to our goal of shared understanding. And if we practice this skill in everyday conversation, we will be more prepared be an “upstander” in the face of injustice.

» With younger kids, practice sharing opinions, respectfully. Encourage kids to find their voices and share their opinions. Too often parents are quick to dampen benign and heartfelt disagreements at home. Let them know it’s okay to share their concerns and ideas.

» With tweens and teens, practice discussing difficult topics and current events at home.

6. Practice conversational empathy.

When discussing big ideas, empathy plays a key role in understanding one another. You’ve already established a foundation of respect. Now give those you are talking to the benefit of the doubt. Assume they are being honest. Assume they have good intentions. Be curious enough to ask questions that will help you understand the issue from their point of view, especially if you disagree completely.

» With younger kids, practice empathy daily. Browse our project ideas or revisit our book lists to discover hundreds of ideas for strengthening those empathy muscles.

» With tweens and teens, practice 180s. In any conversation, encourage your child to take a look at the world from the other perspective. Prompt them to consider the feelings, perspectives, and intentions of others. Get specific with questions like, How do you think your (friend, teacher, lab partner etc.) felt when…”

7. Be a role model.

Resist the urge to shoo kids out of the room during earnest conversations. They just might learn something! Practice your own communication skills and put them into action around your kids. Some tricks of the trade, like knowing how to conclude in a moment of understanding or knowing how to abandon an unproductive or overly aggressive conversation are more easily demonstrated than taught.

Let’s make time to talk about issues that matter. Discover more tips and loads of anecdotes in Celeste Headlee’s book We Need To Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter. Or watch her famous TED Talk, 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation. Let’s practice conversation skills that help us understand one another better. Let’s disagree with respect, empathy, and curiosity. Let’s practice these skills with our families and then carry them out into the world with us, building connections, bridges and understanding as we go through our days. Our society – and our children – will be stronger for it.

Written by Sarah Aadland. This post was originally published on Doing Good Together’s website and is re-published with permission. Doing Good Together™ is a Minneapolis-based national nonprofit that works to make volunteering and service, along with daily kindness, easy for every family.

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