Is “Radical Civility” the Courage You Need?

How to Talk to An A##hole Without Losing Your Sh*t

Kate Bracy
Age of Empathy

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Profile of angry-looking red rooster
Photo credit: Gilmer Diaz-Estala, Pixels

Two summers ago I was preparing a TEDx talk. I was trying to make the case that civility is worth something. Sometimes, worth everything. I was discussing my plan with longtime writing friends in a Facebook chat.

“What do you think people need to hear?” I asked.

“I want to know what to do when you are talking to a total asshole, and you just want to stick him in the neck with a hatpin,” answered my blunt friend. (Does anyone even know what a hatpin is anymore? Hint: All women should carry one…)

She was right. We’re all good at being civil when the stakes are low. With friends, in our “political echo chambers,” with our grandkids, and our cat.

But if some righteous fool buttonholes me at a party, or some friend of your brother-in-law accepts your invitation to Thanksgiving dinner and then rails on about the inalienable rights of male Parcheesi players, and you’re caught flatfooted, what is the suitable response? Can this interaction be saved? Should it?

First, some clarifications. I understand that the planet is crawling with a##holes — online, in politics, at local bars, and even (yes) in our very own families. We must accept this. Like bats that come out after dark, they are there even when we can’t see them.

Second, the “civility” I propose is not mere politeness. That went the way of the embroidered hanky. What I’m talking about is an intrinsic civility that can make magic happen. A deeply held respect for the “other” and their humanity. Radical Civility.

“Radical Civility” is the kind of civil response that makes you the grown-up in the room. Every. Darn. Time.

And third, sometimes an a##hole is worth only the time or energy it takes to say, “Zat so? Please pass the dressing.” Or, “Excuse me, I need the ladies’ room.” Problem solved.

But sometimes the a##hole is YOUR a##hole. It’s the woman your son married. The guy you have to share a work project with. The gal you’ve known for years who has lately taken a turn to “the dark side” and you’re worried about her. These are relationships that you want or need to maintain. What happens when you disagree on something that truly matters to you? That’s when Radical Civility is your golden ticket.

For several years I’ve been part of a grassroots nonprofit that promotes civil discourse. What we’ve learned is that everyone wants civil behavior from the other guy, and not everyone wants to offer it — for many reasons, some of them legit. We’ve also learned that even people who are really good at communication — professional communicators — struggle when the stakes get high. People who can mediate corporate mergers can’t talk to their neighbor about wearing a mask. We’ve also learned that many people who want to have these touchy conversations just don’t know how to start.

“Radical Civility” is the kind of civil response that makes you the grown-up in the room. Every. Darn. Time.

So I’m going to give you the Cliff Notes on what we teach in our workshops. It’s a simple version of the actual class, but it may ring some new bells for you if you are struggling with a tough interaction. Here goes.

Listen first.

Crazy as it sounds, this gives you a little more control of the conversation. For the first few minutes be the listener for your talker. This is you in control. You have the option of turning it into a true discussion — if you want to. To do that, you need to: be curious, paraphrase, then pivot to your own turn. Here’s how.

Be curious.

Curiosity is a game changer. It moves you out of “judging” mode into “interested” mode, and both of you will feel this. Ask clarifying questions — with curiosity, not snark. “How did you come to feel this way?” or “I hadn’t heard that, where would I find that information?”

Paraphrase.

When you’ve heard the main point, or as much as you want to, tell the talker what you heard. “Let me stop you here, and see if I have this right…” and repeat what you think the person is saying. Again, earnestly, not snarkily. “You think the earth is made of oatmeal, and you’re pretty sure of this because you saw it on Facebook?” If they say, “Yes.” or “Exactly!” then you will have heard them, and they will feel heard. I really can’t overstate how powerful this alone can be. People want to be heard, and, more importantly, understood. You’ve done that.

Now, if you want the chance to give another view, here is where you can pivot. You’ve listened, you’ve summarized, and now it’s your turn. (If you want it.)

Pivot.

Sometimes people worry that merely listening will give the talker the idea that you agree. Here is where you can set that right. The pivot sounds like this, “I really hear what you’ve said here, and I see it a little differently. Can I tell you how?” Or some version of this to get permission for your ideas. If the talker says, “no” or starts to go on and on again, you can either say, “I’d really like it if you could listen to my perspective on this, okay?” or you can say, “I’m just going to leave this right here. That’s a lot to think about,” and go off and find a nice dog to pet while your blood pressure returns to normal. What we’ve found is that once you’ve listened, about 90% of people will be interested to hear your side. If you happen to be with one of the 10% group who only wants to hear their own voice, you are entitled to back away. If you can do this with grace, more points, but grace is optional. Self-preservation is primary.

Now that it’s your turn, you are the talker. If you get consent, give your perspective, and thank the listener, you will have put your own views on the table without damaging the relationship. This process may even strengthen the relationship.

Get consent.

You won’t see this often in communication books, but getting consent opens the door, and is essential. Otherwise the other person may experience your thoughts as a drive-by assault — unwanted and a threat. But if you get permission, it is a Radical Courtesy, and the person will feel that they are opting in.

Door open.

Brown dog sitting and raising one paw
Asking permission opens the door. (Photo by Camilla Battani on Unsplash)

Note: We talked about how to ask for consent if you’ve listened first, but if this is a conversation you want to initiate (or return to) it sounds more like this, “I’ve been thinking about that interaction we had the other day, and I’d like to say something about it. Is now a good time?” or some version of that that introduces the topic and asks permission. If now is not a good time, or the person doesn’t want to talk, you can ask for a better time, or leave the door open with, “Okay. Well, I’d be interested in clearing the air on this one, so if you change your mind, let me know.” Again, no bridges burned, no harm to the relationship.

Once you’ve listened, about 90% of people will hear your side. If you happen to be with one of the 10% group who only wants to hear their own voice, you are entitled to back away.

Give your (and ONLY your) perspective.

When you speak from your own experience and describe how and why you feel a certain way, it can be very disarming and enlightening. Don’t speak for a group (“Everyone knows that…” or “The whole office has noticed…”) because the listener will feel like they have been ganged up on. And they have. We often do this because we want to bolster our side of an issue, but it will not create a good discussion, and it may even destroy one.

You be you, and no one else.

Thank the listener

When you’re done, thank the listener for hearing you out. “I appreciate your listening to me. I’ve been wanting to tell you this.” or “Thanks for letting me get my side of this on the table.” “Thank you” in some form brings the conversation to a natural close on a calm, positive note.

Don’t:

(A few cautions for the road ahead.)

Try to change minds.

They don’t change. Let that go. You ain’t changing, and they ain’t changing, and that’s okay. You still have a right to your own view/experience/values.

Continue if you feel like you’re losing it.

Pay attention to yourself. It’s always okay to say, “I think I’ll let it go right here.” (If everyone had this awareness, we would avoid all road rage incidents and certain murders, so it’s an important “Don’t.”)

Feel like you have to talk to every a##hole.

It might be fun to practice on the optional a##holes in your life, so you are better with the necessary ones. But it is always up to you to decide who is worth your time and energy.

There are many possible outcomes when you are successful in talking with your chosen a##hole. Including:

You may discover they are not such an a##hole after all. Understanding goes a long way toward seeing each other as human beings, each doing their best.

You may find it easier to work/live/have Thanksgiving dinner with them as a result of the conversation. If so, it’s a sure sign of success.

You may surprise yourself and see that you have the skills to manage uncomfortable interactions with more ease — i.e. without losing your sh*t.

It is always up to you to decide who is worth your time and energy.

Be the Grownup. See what happens.

black and white photo of adult hand against baby hand, gentle fist-bump
Photo by Heike Mintel on Unsplash

If you want to remind yourself that it’s possible to stay respectful — on and offline — you can sign a pledge here. (No one will hold you to it.)

P.S. If you want an even simpler approach, here’s my TEDx Talk. (Filmed in my office because, you know, COVID…)

Give it a shot and tell me how it goes!!

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Kate Bracy
Age of Empathy

Novelist, nurse, teacher, learner, human. Her novel, "That Crazy Little Thing" is available on Amazon.