Culturati: Next — A Guide To Civil Discourse, Part 2

By. Dr. Steven Tomlinson

This document combines practical best practices from the consulting work of Dr. Steven Tomlinson around civil discourse. Read part one here.

When civil discourse goes right, we are more likely to make good decisions. And, we are far more likely to be creative and innovative in the face of thorny, seemingly intractable problems.

The reason to prioritize civil discourse is in short, the outcomes. Civil discourse isn’t about making people feel better, or avoiding fights. “Kumbaya” is the opposite of civil discourse. Civil discourse is about achieving fundamentally superior business and organizational results.

Moreover, the rich experience of affection that doesn’t depend on people agreeing with us is the best way to form and deepen relationships, both personal and professional. Want to have great Board culture? A better company culture? Want to get the very most out of your people? Want to drive high-performance? Want to win your market?

The fact that most people and most organizations aren’t good at civil discourse — and likely aren’t even interested — offers the competitive edge of a lifetime, particularly in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.

In this Part 2, we go over a good step-by-step process to help make sure civil discourse goes right, as well as a discussion of what happens when things go wrong.

Civil Discourse In 4 Steps

Civil discourse can happen just as well in a 1:1 meeting as it can in a large group. Similarly, civil discourse is important for discerning issues large and small. The below process is designed to scale up and down based on complexity and urgency.

Step One: The Complication Meeting

In the complication meeting, we want to make the problem at hand as complicated as we can. This goes against what we have been taught, and what we have been told in business and life is most efficient.

In fact, many of us have been trained to reduce complication, manipulating assumptions and using rhetorical tricks to score points fast.

When we skip steps to press towards a solution unnaturally fast, we usually miss nuance. That is, we fail to appreciate the contour of a problem — contour that gives us all-important hints about solutions that we might otherwise fail to notice.

The complication meeting can happen between 2 people or 12. Sometimes, the complication meeting is actually a series of meetings, because there are many stakeholders. Sometimes, all the stakeholders are in one room, or on one call.

Step Two: Identifying Competing Goods

“Competing goods” express a polarity — two things that are simultaneously true, and yet seem to be in conflict. Civil discourse is less about resolving that conflict, or tension — and more about holding it productively.

For example:

“Tuition remission keeps us competitive, ensuring that we have the best faculty and staff.”


“The school’s financial sustainability is essential to both our short and long-term success.”

These are great examples of two “competing goods.” Both are good. Yet, they appear to compete. Competing goods are the heart of any disagreement.

Framing them as “goods’’ helps both sides appreciate the other’s intent. Identifying them as competing helps us begin to think creatively about a productive or innovative resolution.

Sometimes there are more than two competing goods, especially with complex problems. This is normal. In a simple 1:1 conversation, the competing goods might be quite simple. In either case, more than half the battle is properly identifying and expressing them.

Step Three: Brainstorming Alternatives

If we have done a good job of making the problem as complicated as possible, and if we have done a good job of articulating competing goods, brainstorming alternatives comes easy.

This part of the agenda is all about looking for options that satisfy competing goods. You will be surprised at how quickly and how many alternatives appear if you have done the necessary pre-work, and if you follow the Rules of Engagement (see Part 1, here).

The skeptic will say that sometimes there has to be a winner and a loser — that an alternative that satisfies both competing goods does not usually exist.

This is true, but more rare than you might think.

As we start to more regularly look at problems from the same side of the table and “find a bug,” you will find that far more often than not, rigidity subsides in the process of civil discourse.

Solutioning together is more satisfying, first of all. It just feels good. And once a group has seen positive results 3–4 times in a row, their optimism grows.

If you do reach the conclusion that there is no alternative that satisfies your competing goods, that conclusion is still an order of magnitude richer for having been through the process, and the group accordingly more bought-in to the final result.

Step Four: Final Decision

What we find is that instead of ending up in binary either-or situations, it is far more common to finish Step Three with more than one viable alternative.

As such, a final decision needs to be made. This can be done in the ordinary process of business. Usually this means there is a single final decision-maker who makes a unilateral choice after hearing a recommendation, or there is a group vote decided by plurality. Ultimately, this process can accommodate whatever final decision-making structure is already in place.

What matters most is that the process up to this point be presented to any decision maker or decision-makers in a way that conveys the problem’s many complications and competing goods with fidelity.

As such, strong documentation is key. What was our process? What did we learn? And what are the strengths and weaknesses of each alternative?

Ways It Can Go Wrong

It is hard to sustain this sort of engagement if you’re confident you already know the answer, and look at others as mere obstacles to the right outcome.

The #1 way civil discourse goes wrong is that it misses a huge upside opportunity. The best and surest way to be mediocre is to avoid civil discourse.

Civil discourse need not devolve into moral relativism either — if you follow the process and principles outlined in this document, we promise that matters of right and wrong will become more clear, not less — and again, you’ll be fundamentally better off for having taken the risk.

These “dispositions,” we have found, are tightly related to civil discourse going right and wrong.

Humility is the disposition that believes we might learn something from other perspectives, that trusts that hearing someone else’s point of view or experience can only enrich our understanding and provide resources for framing the problem and inspiring good policy. The opposite of humility is fear, often driven by pride, jealousy, or a hunger for power.

Patience helps us remember that not every issue that arises requires quick action and that, where possible, additional time invested in understanding the problem, including stakeholders, and being curious about one another’s differences, typically yields a great return. False urgency is the opposite of patience. When we compress timelines to increase the chances of getting what we want, we usually don’t make the right decision as a group.

Discernment is prior to negotiation and decision-making; it comes after we have gathered information and visited with stakeholders, and before we get down to brass tacks. Discernment is the opposite of “jumping to conclusions.” Think of discernment as self-reflection and self-restraint. Good, regular discernment is a sign of a healthy community — and one that wants to get things right. When we aren’t discerning, we limit the information we have to make good decisions, and we delegate those decisions to politics, or chance.

Urgency, when needed, must not be thwarted by civil discourse. Civil discourse and good discernment are a wise investment of time. Often an issue arises that truly calls for quick action, however. In such cases, the leaders who must make a time-sensitive decision should convene in the spirit of discernment and follow whatever version of the process is possible in the allotted time. Civil discourse must not be associated with “slowness.” Civil discourse can happen quite quickly in fact — especially once you’ve had some practice.

Again, but for most of our most difficult decisions, and particularly those where there either is no right answer or it appears there will be both “winners” and “losers,” think of civil discourse as a practical, high leverage tool for 2022 and beyond.

The most exciting thing that happens when a group or team commits to civil discourse is that it eventually becomes second nature — it stops being a “thing we do” or a “thing we are learning” or “a thing we are trying” and becomes inseparable from good process and good decision-making. It becomes a habit.

Good luck!



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Culturati Team

Culturati Team

Culturati is a community of CEOs, entrepreneurs, investors and other c-suite leaders who practice & study culture building and share our play books.