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Setting Ground Rules - Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions

Use these ground rules and the examples written by other students to develop your own norms of civil discourse.

In courtrooms, it’s not the loudest voice that prevails. Opposing arguments are grounded in reason and evidence and they are put forward within strict guidelines for courtroom decorum.  Each side tests the arguments of the other side, and a judge holds everyone to the same protocol and standards of appropriate behavior. Asking questions of each side is an integral part of the process. The adversarial system is no place for incivility. In fact, court proceedings are set up to promote effective civil discourse.

Put an X next to the actions and attitudes that are most important to you.

  1. Be mindful of your own behavior. Notice how you internally are reacting/responding when others speak. Pay attention to how your words and your silence are impacting the experience for others in the group.
    What are you doing to create a welcoming environment for differing opinions? Are you looking at each speaker and giving your full attention? Are you listening with an open mind – momentarily putting aside what you will say next?

    Are you asking clarifying questions?  Are you being careful not to take over the conversation by talking longer than others? Are you refraining from subtle, but disrespectful behavior or not paying attention when others speak?
  2. Wait to be recognized by the moderator before speaking.  This allows time – before you speak – for reflection on what the previous speaker(s) have said.
  3. Don’t interrupt or talk over someone else who is speaking, even when you are excited.
  4. No side conversations. They are disrespectful to the speaker and distract listeners from the person who has the floor.
  5. Listen for content in the statements of others, especially when you disagree. Listen for what the speakers are trying to communicate, even if they aren’t expressing their points concisely.
  6. Find common ground. Identify and call attention to areas of agreement.
  7. Follow the direction of the discussion. Don’t repeat what already has been said. Relate your comments to those of previous speakers.
  8. Ask questions. Don’t assume that you know what someone else means. Ask the speaker to help you understand perspectives different from your own.
  9. Don’t embarrass yourself or disrespect others by making demeaning or inappropriate comments, facial expressions, or gestures. No eye rolling, sighing, or checking out of the conversation.
  10. Differentiate between facts and opinions. Both are valid when expressed appropriately.

What would you add?

Example of Student-Developed Civility Rules

How to engage in civil discourse:

  1. Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
  2. Moderate your tone, so that you don’t sound aggressive.
  3. Be conscious and mindful of your facial expressions.
  4. Be attentive and considerate of your opponent’s point of view:
    • Process what is being said
    • Give equal time to opposing opinions.
  5. Don’t repeat yourself. Use a variety of evidence.

How to interact respectfully with someone who fails to obey the agreed-upon rules of civility:

  1. Respectfully ask for evidence that supports the statements made.
  2. Stay calm and consider taking a break from the conversation.
  3. Tell your opponent that you don’t know how to interpret his/her facial expression. 
    • Ask for help in understanding what they mean.
  4. Ask for equal time, using a polite tone: “May I finish my point?”
  5. Express understanding: “I understand,” or “I hear you."

DISCLAIMER: These resources are created by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for educational purposes only. They may not reflect the current state of the law, and are not intended to provide legal advice, guidance on litigation, or commentary on any pending case or legislation.