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Civil discourse, this year’s hot topic

By Karen Beranek

In the past year, each and every professional development session I've attended has had one thing in common: the topic of civil discourse! Everyone’s talking about the need for it, the lack of resources around it, and opportunities surrounding it.

My colleague Jessica Russo started the conversation on this blog with her recent post, Youth programs can rescue democracy. It has elicited numerous heartfelt comments. I'd like to continue that conversation.

Teaching young people how to talk with those who have a different background or view than they have is sometimes as simple as providing a safe place for them to do so. Here are some strategies.

Group agreements

From the Center for Adolescent Studies, this technique develops expectations for functioning with a set of group norms.

Active listening

From the U.S. State Department. It's a method in which the listener seeks to understand, suspend judgment and give full attention.

Text Talk Revive Civility

The National Institute for Civil Discourse developed a great tool to start a conversation. They want to reach youth where they were already communicating – their cell phones! Each conversation starts with a text message. Group members then receive a series of text messages with prompts to continue the small group conversation. They ask what civility is, what it looks like in conversation, what it means to the people in the group and even how the group can help revive civility in their lives. This interactive platform keeps the conversation going.


Young people today thrive in both understanding themselves and by understanding those around them. WeConnect is a program model and curriculum developed here in the Center for Youth Development. It encourages youth to gain thinking, communication, interpersonal and intercultural skills.

Some of the rural youth I work with have not had a chance to talk about these issues as often as their peers in more culturally diverse areas. Recently, Twins Cities PBS aired video report about one rural community and its growth through immigration and diversity. I shared it with people in my community and it served as a conversation launch pad for adults and youth. It sparked conversations about the reality of the community. One person was able to talk about how it gave them a peek into the daily struggles of others.  Another saw elements in the school system. Each person I talked with saw this community from a new perspective after watching it.

How have you started conversations with the civil discourse mindset? Have you found yourself in a conversation in which you focused on civility?

-- Karen Beranek, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. Thank you for continuing the conversation, Karen! This is such an important topic. And I appreciate the video you shared from PBS Almanac. Worthington is a great example of the need for people to find a way to meet part way. I was also heartened by an article I read the Christian Science Monitor about a group in our US House of Representatives made up of 24 Democrats and 24 Republicans called the Problem Solvers Caucus ( This group of Congressmen and women are attempting to hold each other and others accountable to finding solutions to sensible governing. Though they have a tough row to hoe, they are trying to put politics aside to find common ground. And, I assume, finding a way to respect each other despite disagreements.

  2. Thanks for sharing such a great example of where professionals are coming together and role modeling the concept of civility. Many young people are excited to learn and work with others who will help them in expanding their perspectives. Seeing a group of democrats and republicans working together to focus on solutions by having difficult conversations could grow that enthusiasm, encouraging them to be active citizens in our society.


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