It All Starts With Us
Authors in a variety of media — newspapers, television news, books, blogs — have been calling out the lack of civility in democratic society. There is increased attention to the challenges we face as a society when our political leadership can’t talk to each other, debate, negotiate, or compromise. The trends in the media are promoting an environment where fighting is encouraged and civil debate is considered boring news. The problem is that the lack of civility is pervasive; it has extended into our daily lives.
There are four approaches that we can all use in our daily interactions to restore civility to daily life. I challenge people to work on these four things in their interactions with friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and complete strangers. These are four aspects of interactions that are often missing today. I have observed it in my (former) workplaces, when interacting with friends and family, and when watching the interactions of our public officials.
We do not engage in active listening anymore. It is important to listen to each other when we engage in civil discourse. When we do not listen, we are not giving the other participants in a conversation or civil debate an opportunity to express their views. It is not enough to just give them a chance to speak. We need to actively listen and hear what they are saying.
I cannot count the number of times that I have been in meetings or conversations where it is apparent that another participant is just waiting for me to stop talking so that they can share what they are thinking. Sometimes they don’t even wait for you to stop talking. They interrupt because they are so eager to make their point. There have been numerous instances where it has been apparent that the other person has been sitting there planning what they are going to say in response rather than listening to me. It is particularly apparent when they make a statement that I have already rebutted or commented on and have not incorporated that new information into their response.
Here are some pointers for interacting in a way that engages active listening techniques. First, take notes on what the other person is saying. If a thought hits you that you feel you really need to express, jot it down so you don’t forget and return to listening to what the person is saying. Second, maintain eye contact. You would be surprised how many people have difficulty maintaining eye contact today. It demonstrates that you are present and listening. Third, stop planning your response. I struggle with this one because I have anxiety. I feel the need to rehearse things I am going to say. Unfortunately, when I do this I am not actively listening to others when they speak. Fourth, consider the speaker’s viewpoint carefully and without judgement. Stop trying to come up with a counterpoint to everything that they have said.
When it is your turn to respond, start by summarizing what the other person has said in your own words. Note: this works for online interactions as well. This is an opportunity to make sure that you understand what the individual was trying to say. It also gives the other speaker an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings and improve their own communication skills. Ask questions when you are not sure what was meant by a statement. Don’t read meaning into things that people say or write without having concrete reasons for doing so. I can’t tell you the number of times that people have read into my emails or conversations things that I never said or intended. I have a tendency to be very direct and blunt. Others read this as anger, hostility, or critique. I just like to get to the point. Clarifying questions could have cleared this up. Try not to assume ill-intent.
Once you have clarified the other person’s position or perspective you can respond. Make sure that you give their perspective consideration. If you are going to rebut things that the other person has said, give concrete reasons. Avoid name calling. Incorporate what they have said into your commentary. All of these techniques will demonstrate that you were actively listening to what they said, heard them, and are actually considering their words. This takes us to the next point — respect.
We need to treat each other with dignity and respect. We do not have to agree on things, but we should show those we interact with respect. We don’t even need to like each other. I had plenty of former coworkers that I didn’t like, but I tried to treat them with respect. Respect can go a long way in fostering civil conversation.
One of the problems with the behaviors that our political leaders are exhibiting is that they do not treat each other with respect. They call each other names and engage in personal attacks. This accomplishes nothing except increasing hostility and decreasing civility. Again, you don’t have to like a person but you can treat them with respect.
What does it say about you as a person if you are forced to resort to name-calling and personal attacks? Does this speak to intelligence? I think not. In fact, I would argue that this indicates that you don’t have a concrete response to the substance of a communication from the other side. We need to return to conversations based on the concrete issues that underlie our debates. Don’t make it personal. Keep it civil. Treat each other with respect.
In treating each other with respect, we also need to focus on building relationships. Gone are the days where you could engage in a debate over the issues with a person of an opposing viewpoint and then go out to lunch like you were not on opposite sides of the debate. We do not take the time to build and cultivate relationships with others. Those relationships allow for successful civil exchanges.
Many people are “unfriending” or “muting” people that they have known for a long time as a result of differing political views. This is just widening the divide that has emerged in our society. Instead, we need to build relationships whether we agree on every topic or not.
In fact, I would argue that we need to foster relationships with people who have different views from our own. We become more and more entrenched in our viewpoints when we surround ourselves only with those who agree with us. Additionally, we lose the ability to engage in civil debate based on the merits of our position as our position is never challenged. We do not need to agree on everything, and honestly it is dangerous to surround yourself only with those who agree with your perspective. If you have to defend your position on an issue, you are also engaging in critical thought on why you have that position in the first place. Fostering relationships with those who have opposing views allows us to do that.
Additionally, fostering relationships that go beyond the issues will make engaging in civil discourse over differing viewpoints a safer conversation. We are so afraid of differing viewpoints that for some it triggers anxiety. We walk away from those situations. We are hurting society by not being able to engage in civil debate. If you have developed a relationship with a person outside of the disagreement, the disagreement will be less uncomfortable. This means that you need to do more than maintain your “friendships” over social media. The superficial exchange on these media give a false sense of friendship and comfort. The reason it is so easy for these relationships to fall apart is they are not rooted in deeper social meaning and experience. We don’t have to work to maintain those friendships, so they do not have a deeper meaning for us that can carry us through disagreements.
Finally, we need to build trust. This is absent across the board in our interactions and relationships, and it is seriously harming our ability to engage in civil discourse in all aspects of our lives. There are different forms of trust that we need to build.
We need to build individual trust. This is indicating to others that we do not have ill-intent toward them. We need to build trust that we are all coming from a place of good intent and trying to do well by others. Most people do not have evil intent, but we are fostering a society where we assume bad intent until proven otherwise rather than the reverse. This is harmful to our ability to engage in civil discourse and, frankly, to our mental health. Always assuming that those we interact with have ill intent is damaging to our psyche. This form of trust is incredibly important. It often boils down to predictability. Can I predict how you will respond to things I say and do? If yes, then I have some individual trust with you. I need to believe that you are an honest and trustworthy individual for this form of trust.
We need to build relational trust. This is the type of trust that is embedded in our relationships. Can I trust that even when we disagree on a topic you will still treat me with respect? Can I trust that our relationship will survive that disagreement unscathed? If the answer to these questions is yes, we have relational trust. It takes time to build this form of trust. We have to have individual trust first, then we can build relational trust.
Finally, we need organizational trust. We need trust in our organizations and in our roles in organizations. This includes work organizations, neighborhood organizations, formal organizations, informal organizations, etc. Can I trust that people in the organizational units that I belong to will fulfill their roles and can I entrust them with that role knowing that they will fill the role with integrity? This is the form of trust that was missing in past jobs for me. I could trust some of the people around me (not all), but I could not trust that leadership had good intent toward those they were supposed to be leading. We had management but not leadership. In short, we did not have organizational trust. You need to be able to believe that others in the organization have good intent and that the overall organizational leadership has good intent to build organizational trust. This is a difficult form of trust to build in massive bureaucracies and political structures.
This has been a call to return to civility in our daily lives. We need to hold our leaders (in all aspects of our lives) accountable. A part of this accountability is demonstrating an expectation that they will behave civilly. Part of the problem with the political divide in society is that they do not engage in civil discourse anymore. That was once a bedrock principle of our society.
The best way to encourage those who lead us to engage in civility is for us to demonstrate it in our interactions on a daily basis. In order to do so, we need to improve our capacity for listening to others, get better at stating the merits of our arguments, build trust with others, treat each other with respect, and work harder on building, cultivating, and maintaining healthy and prosocial relationships. A return to civility could have the effect of reducing some of our mental health concerns, and it will only serve to increase our ability to negotiate and compromise. This will allow us to find the best and most creative paths forward through the challenges that we are now facing.