Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
Back to Opinion

These are divided times. 4 tips for civil debate on difficult topics.

This article is part of a new series called “On Persuasion.” We asked thought leaders to consider what persuasion means to them. What works in terms of persuading people? Is it moot in 2020? What is the Jewish value of persuasion? Should we be opening our minds to other points of view, or closing them to dangerous ideas? This is the first article of the series. Read all the pieces here.

In early 2019, my friend Leighton Woodhouse and I embarked on an experiment: Could we get people from opposite sides of political tribes to sit down and have civil but robust conversations about the issues that divide them?

This experiment created the podcast Extremely Offline, a miniseries in which we ended up producing twenty episodes. (Although we’ve ended the series for now, you can still listen to it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher; we’re re-focusing our time on a YouTube show called the Backchannel where we bring on guests to discuss under-reported topics.) Over the course of those twenty episodes, we were able to have wide-ranging conversations on contentious topics, ranging from the role of race in America to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Russiagate.

Extremely Offline was born out of the premise that too many political conversations in America devolve into shouting matches and name-calling, particularly when they take place on social media (although cable news is hardly an Oxford debating society, either). By taking these conversations offline, asking the guests to talk to each other one-on-one in a moderated arena, our hope was that we could discuss contentious topics without the contentious tone you often find on Twitter or Facebook.

I’m proud to say we were pretty successful. If you browse through our archive, you’ll find discussions and debates on issues ranging from the limits of criminal justice reform to the merits of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism — all without the ad hominem you might be used to seeing online.

So how’d we do it? Here are some of the biggest lessons we learned about how to have tough conversations without the rancor you might expect to see.

Create a safe space

First, it is important to create an emotionally safe arena for the discussants. Participants in our discussions needed to know that they could be open about their views and that they would be treated fairly in return.

One of the hardest parts of putting together Extremely Offline was reaching out to and convincing guests to appear in the first place. When it came to the first few guests who appeared, many of them were close friends or acquaintances we had met during our professional careers, which made it easier to convince them that our episodes wouldn’t devolve into a shouting match. After producing a few episodes, this process became easier, as we were able to send previous episodes to future guests in order to convince them that our show would give them a fair hearing.

Moderate the conversation

Second, it helps a lot to have a moderator. There are times when conversations risked going into territory where participants would feel personally attacked; by stepping in as moderators, Leighton and I had the ability to steer conversations away from personal abuse and towards constructive disagreement.

In almost all of our political conversations, there isn’t a neutral third party who can step in; the format of our show ensured that there was always someone there to make sure the two sides conducted the conversation civilly.

Meet face to face

Third, conversations tended to work best face to face. Although we recorded episodes both remotely and in-person, some of our best episodes featured discussions that took place with participants who were sitting in the same room and having casual conversations with each other.

When people talk to each other in person, they pay more attention to body language and tone of voice. It’s also just a lot harder to yell at someone or demean them if you’re talking face to face rather than to a voice on your telephone (or an avatar on your computer screen).

Take the time

Lastly, probably the most important reason a podcast like this was able to work is that we were able to host these conversations in a one on one, in a long-form recorded format. If guests wanted to stop and start again, or to go about the conversation in a different way, we gave them the freedom to do so.

Unlike social media-based arguments or cable news segments, there was no rush to get your points out in a short period of time; the guests also did not necessarily feel like they were performing for an audience, farming likes and retweets. We did our utmost best to simulate an informal conversation between two people who respect each other but disagree, and we largely succeeded.

If after listening to the Extremely Offline archive you’re sitting at home wishing you could have more conversations like this, I’d encourage you to seek out civil society activists who are working to promote similarly moderated, good-faith discussions about difficult issues. You could, for instance, get involved with the organization Braver Angels, which hosts workshops and debates aimed at facilitating conversations across the Red-Blue divide.

You could also check out The People’s Supper, which brings people together to have dinner and talk across all kinds of divides — including political ones but also generational and social differences as well.

A huge number of Americans are fed up with the way we have tough political conversations. But we don’t have to give up and disengage altogether. With Extremely Offline, we showed that there’s a way to disagree without being disagreeable. I hope we can inspire you to do the same with your political opponents as well.

Zaid Jilani is a journalist who hails from Atlanta, Georgia. He has previously worked as a reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress, United Republic, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Alternet. He is the co-host of the podcast “Extremely Offline.”

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.