Civility and Conflict: How to Engage in Both and Still Remain Friends
Engaging in conflict demands knowing when and how to engage with civility (and when civility isn’t required!).
Last week, I tackled the topic of conflict and civility in fraternities and sororities (and by extension, student organizations in general). I addressed a few ways a chapter can engage in conflict and make it part of the standards of behavior expected from its members. In summary, a chapter needs to invest as much time in teaching its members what conflict should look and sound like as it does when training new and old members on other important member behavior.
This week I’ll continue to explore this topic, introducing strategies on how to engage in conflict that make our work better. I’ll introduce a couple of ways to ask your members to disagree that helps refine the outcome of your decisions. And I’ll connect the idea of conflict with civility with the concept of congruence.
The Social Change Model
The Social Change Model of Leadership defines Controversy with Civility as “recognizing two fundamental realities of any creative group effort: that differences in viewpoint are inevitable, and that such difference must be aired openly but with civility. Civility implies respect for others, a willingness to hear each other’s views, and the exercise of restraint in criticizing the views and actions of others.
“This is best achieved in a collaborative framework and when a common purpose has been identified. Controversy (conflict, confrontation) can often lead to new, creative solutions to problems, especially when it occurs in an atmosphere of civility, collaboration, and common purpose.”
Last week, I pointed out how student groups need to recognize two things: 1. Differences are inevitable and 2. They need to be aired openly. This week I want to focus on how to air these differences openly, and really look at how civility operates. I also want to harness the potential new ideas that could be created through conflict.
When Civility Matters
Conflict in a chapter is easy enough to define and identify. We know it when members stop talking to one another, or a controversial decision has to be made that divides the chapter in half (or more). Or literal fights (passive and aggressive) break out among the members. But how do you identify and encourage civility?
Civility can be defined as the “baseline of respect that we owe one another in public life” as identified by Keith Bybee, the author of How Civility Works. Respect can look and sound like a number of things but in the end, it has been agreed upon, or else people may feel disrespected by others — including the dismissal of their ideas or perspectives.
Bybee continues, “Right now that social contract — a common agreement on what appropriate public behavior looks like and who deserves respect — feels broken. No one can agree on the facts, let alone on how to argue or what to argue about.” I believe that in order for a group of people to engage in civility they need to make sure they all know what they are arguing or disagreeing on! I am always surprised to find that many on-going disagreements are, in fact, disagreements on two entirely different things.
“How Do I Do This” Asked Someone I’m Sure
This is when civility matters — when those involved are able to understand that disagreement doesn’t mean disrespect. It will be important to talk about and identify what respect looks and sounds like in your chapter. Perhaps using titles correctly, addressing the membership with ‘I’ statements, focusing on the facts instead of emotional responses if possible.
Members don’t always have to agree on everything. But they do need to agree to act and be civil when making decisions for the group. And that takes a great deal of effort to be mindful.
Stay Present during Conflict
One way to make sure that your members are staying present during times of conflict. Next time ask them to not raise their hands when someone is talking about a point of conflict. Why is this important?
When someone raises their hand during a discussion while someone is talking, they haven’t listened entirely to everything first. How can you disagree immediately when you don’t know how its going to end? Ask your members to listen fully before disagreeing.
I Hear You And…
You can also ask your members to say the following, instead of saying they disagree: I Hear You And…
By reinforcing that idea of listening to others, and removing the conjunction ‘but’ you ask members to reinforce the respect afforded others. We want to be heard. We want to be understood. And we want our ideas to be taken seriously.
Replace ‘but’ with ‘and, and see what new ideas could emerge. Since disagreements can often feel like an either/or situation, replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’ could offer a new idea. A different outcome. Cooperation and collaboration rather than something divisive.
When Civility Doesn’t Matter
Working in and around social justice topics for over twenty years, I know civility can silence opposition or intentional behaviors that focus on pointing out exclusive behavior. For instance, a member may feel that people of color are being excluded from a leadership position. Or they may witness misogyny within and among their members. Or they may hear or overhear racist, sexists, elitist, classist, etc remarks directed at other members or non-members. Is civility necessary to stop this kind of behavior?
Civility has often been used to silence people. Its behavior is a reflection of a community or society's expectations. Therefore it often reflects the dominant or privileged group with the power to create the rules. Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt, in Challenging Calls for Civility, says “What has often counted for civil behavior or who had access to free speech historically have also privileged the ruling class, the colonizers, the bourgeois, and males with a deep heteronormative sense of being in the world.”
So if you’re in a minoritized community, like being a POC in a historically white organization, you may not feel the privilege to point out what you feel needs to be addressed without being asked to be more civil in your reaction or anger. Is a civil response required when this happens? Is this conflict the kind that requires civility?
I would argue no.
Racism, sexism, and the like aren’t behaviors that require a consensus approach to change or challenge. So challenge it. Point it out. Call it out. Find allies to do the same. Do what you can to point out how these behaviors are incongruent with the values of the organization.
The Irony of Leadership
In my previous post, I addressed the irony of leadership. Student groups need to engage in more conflict. Like tons more conflict. If people are just agreeing to avoid conflict, you will find two outcomes. 1. People will not feel engaged. 2. You will make a choice that rocks the foundation of your group.
Make sure that the conflict you do engage in helps grow the group. That it helps identify ways to challenge and change. And above all, it helps your members feel heard. You will find that conflict is only going to help you grow.