On Civility

From a talk given to the Urgency of Civility Conference, by the Worldwide Civility Council, May 17–19, 2021

We all know that civil interactions are crucial — not much gets done without that baseline of respectful interaction. But there’s a lot of nuance in this consideration. Following are brief reflections on Inner Civility, Listening, Difference, Power, and Trust.

Photo credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel
  1. About Inner Civility

There is an outer civility –being “courteous and polite in speech and behavior”, as the dictionary describes it. In both word and deed. And that’s all good.

But personally, I’ve seen that beneath my outer civility, I can still be judgmental and snarky on the inside. Which is humbling. That doesn’t mean that discernment and good judgment are not essential components of civility — they are. But there’s a fine line between clear discernment and harsh judgment, isn’t there? And that is a line everyone who is committed to civility must walk in these difficult and polarized times.

Civility is not just “superficial congeniality”. Outer civility is necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Inner civility requires more of us. It requires a deeper understanding of others and the world, a deeper respect for the “other”. Whether you think they deserve it or not.

2. About Listening

Real civility demands real listening. And real listening is hard. You might have heard the saying that “Life gave us two ears and one mouth because it’s twice as important to listen as it is to talk”.

Listening is a big deal, and the well-known management thinker Stephen Covey defined five levels of listening:

  1. Ignoring

2. Pretend listening

3. Selective listening

4. Attentive listening

5. Empathetic listening

For me, that was crucial to understand. I could see that I fell prey to the first four, in varying degrees, in various circumstances, all too often.

I had a conversation with a rather aggressive man at dinner a few years ago. He was itching for a fight, and opened up with a barrage of political perspectives I could not have disagreed with more. His wife looked on quietly in horror, as in “OMG, this is going to get ugly”. After resisting the temptation to stab him with my steak knife –restraint being a key characteristic of civility — I took a deep breath and followed the advice of early feminist and writer Brenda Ueland, and asked him a simple question: Tell Me More. How did you come to that point of view? What shaped your perspective?

Silence. And then he poured it out, and I listened, first with difficulty and then with genuine empathy and interest. I did not interrupt. I learned that he had legitimate reasons for his perspective. And after he had said his piece, he was softer, and then looked me in the eye and asked for my perspective. Sincerely.

I was straightforward, and said something like “we don’t agree on this, we never will, but boy, thank you for being so honest. I’m really grateful for that.” And I meant it.

Because I had listened deeply to him, he also listened deeply to me. We went from combat to conversation. From interaction to intimacy. To shall we say, a civil exchange.

Sometimes it feels like there’s not a lot of magic in our world right now, but driving home after dinner I realized that something magical had just happened. Something I would never forget. He did not change my mind, and I doubt I changed his, but both our perspectives were broadened. And both our hearts were more open. And I realized, wow, this is how deep change happens.

To listen to others in this way is not just a neutral or passive act. It is a creative act. It is generative.It actually shapes the response of others. When you are deeply listened to, different things come out of your mouth. When you listen to others deeply, different things come out of their mouths. Tell Me More.

3. About Difference

Something in the development of our ancient brains causes us to regard people who are different than us as dangerous. As the “other”. Who knows why? Psychologists call this “enemy formation”, and Robert Half was right when he said:

“The search for someone to blame is the search that always succeeds”.

There are countless differences among human beings on earth — race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, age, ethnicity, politics, religion, geography, zip code. And various combinations of the above. History has shown us that our response to difference can all too easily dehumanize people, and stir whatHarvard biologist E.O. Wilson calls our “Paleolithic emotions”.

I’ve been compelled by the work of Valerie Kaur, the Sikh woman who wrote the book See No Stranger. She found the extraordinary courage to visit the man who had killed her beloved uncle, now locked in prison for life. She basically asked him one question: Help me understand. Tell me more.

He did, and then broke down with guilt and remorse. They wept together. A healing took place. Revolutionary love was on deck. Holiness was in the house.

“Compassion is the radicalism of our time”,

says the Dalai Lama, and that is something I hope to embody every day of my life.

The perception of difference, of the other, is with us. It has always been with us. Maybe it will always be with us. We ARE different. It is how we DEAL with difference that defines us. I love what Johnetta Cole, former President of historically black Spelman College said:

“We are for difference. For allowing difference. For respecting difference.For celebrating difference. Until difference doesn’t make any more difference.”

4. About Power

Power is a word that makes us uncomfortable, understandably so. I don’t need to tell you that we live in a world of asymmetrical power and privilege — racially, economically, socially, sexually, spiritually, culturally. The book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson shines a sober light on the American caste system, and how it finally boils down to power — who has it, and who does not.

I read a piece recently called WhyCivility Won’t End Racism, which pointed out that civility alone cannot address our asymmetrical power dynamics or be a substitute for justice.Civility has way more important work to do than preserving the status quo, preserving the structures of the prevailing caste system. The last thing any of us want is for civility to paper over injustice.

It was Dr. King who said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Here’s the good news: the old definition of power is changing. Has been changing for awhile. Changing from power over and power against, to power for, power with, power among, and power within.”

Power and love must go hand in hand.

5. About Trust

This brings us to trust, a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, including by me. Yes, trust is fundamental. But what is it actually? It is not just simple trust — the natural trust a child feels for a parent, or that a pet feels for their person. It is not blind trust — the trust that we may feel for political, corporate, spiritual leaders, or loved ones — in spite of the evidence. Not simple, not blind. Open eyed, mature. ErnestHemingway said it well:

“The best way to find out if you can trust someone, is to trust them.”

You’ll find out soon enough.

Trust, I have learned, is not simply a thing, a kind of floating substance between us. Trust is not just a noun. Trust is a verb — a choice. A commitment. A kind of vow.

What happens when you are deeply trusted by someone? By a boss, mentor, child, coworker, parent, partner, or friend? Think about the effect of that trust on your spirit. Trust grows you.It makes you stronger. It brings out the best in you. It makes you want to be better. It helps you become more than you thought you could be.

What happens when you are mistrusted? One of my friends recently shared her experience of being unfairly mistrusted by a colleague. The effect? Less engagement with the project and the people. More stress. Less sleep. More self-doubt. Less wellbeing. Lower performance. We know from the science of mirror neurons and neurobiology that trust and mistrust have an effect not just on our psychology, but on our physiology.

Trust is not a nice to have — it is a need to have.

Not trust for affection — you don’t have to like people to do great work with them. Not trust for agreement — isn’t it crucial to have many different perspectives in the room? No. This is about trust for action. Trust for impact. Trust to get things done. The kind of trust that flourishes when people show up, stick around, and follow through.

This kind of trust, like listening, is not passive. It is active. It is generative. It accelerates positive change. Accelerates outcomes that could not have occurred otherwise.Trust actually speeds things up.Boom. Then together we break the sound barrier and move at the speed of trust. The speed of trust — what a beautiful phrase.

A few final words

Civility is not “cordial hypocrisy”. It goes far beyond mere politeness.

Civility is so crucial in our world right now is because it actually allows us to have hard conversations. Not conversations for agreement. Not conversations for affection. Conversations for understanding. Conversations for change. Conversations for action.

I want to share something I read last year that had a big influence on me. I don’t remember who said it, and have since learned that authorship has been attributed to several people. But I will never forget these words:

We are not here to see through each other. We are here to see each other through.

That is not anemic. That takes strength. That takes character. That takes courage.

That is the beating heart of civility.




Converge is a network of strategists, designers, storytellers, and systems thinkers who believe in interconnection as the ground for action. There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come — join us in the network approach to creating a future that works for all.

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David Sawyer

David Sawyer

Strategy guy for a better world. Partner of Converge, with a focus on organizational and network strategy, design, and systems thinking.

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