There is a national initiative being launched in Maine called Revive Civility, which makes me wonder. Is civility dead or just unconscious? What has caused its demise and why does it matter? And what can we do about it?
While some may hear the term civility and think it means being polite or nice, that is not what is meant here. Rather, it is a concept that includes the willingness and ability to engage in constructive dialogue with anyone, particularly with people who hold different beliefs and opinions from your own. With that definition in mind, it’s hard to disagree with the notion that there has been a decrease of civility, whether in local and national institutions or less formal community and organizational forums. Maybe not dead, but definitely in need of resuscitation.
There seem to be many factors contributing to this. Perhaps we have lost faith that we are all in this together and that there really is something called the common good that is worth caring about. Are we so beguiled by the belief in our own ‘rightness’, that we are unable to hear and appreciate the experience of another who has walked a different path than us? Are we so fearful that, once engaged, we will lose our own beliefs or be overpowered? Or maybe we’re just so self-absorbed that we fear engagement itself.
We’ve all heard about the sometimes raucous and downright vicious exchanges that took place while our country was being formed. What was different then was that after everyone had passionately expressed their opinions, they were compelled, by the need to agree on an action, to finally work to find a consensus or at least a compromise. They were able to put country above ego.
It’s easy to put the blame on all those who model this lack of skill and bad behavior for us. If our leaders and officials can’t work together more effectively, why should we make the effort? The answer, for me, is that there is just too much at stake to wait for others to change. Each one of us has to be the change we want to see and hope to lead and inspire others.
Where can we begin the work of reviving civility? I believe it has to take place on two fronts: the will and the skill. The first is a mind shift, back to a belief that the best solutions to our problems lie in collaboration and compromise and there is rarely one right answer. That’s a tough one, probably learned only through experience and reflection. But we can begin by demonstrating the power of respectful listening, empathy and compromise every time we meet someone with whom we differ. And we can gently push back when meetings we are in are hijacked by the loudest (or rudest) voices in the room. We can demand better from our local leadership to create constructive processes and forums.
The second one is easier. Everyone can learn the skills of dialogue if they choose to. We can offer more opportunities to teach the skills, e.g., reframing problems so they are not either-or choices, active listening to understand, suspending judgment and overcoming confirmation bias, and employing collaborative and creative problem-solving methods. We can all learn and practice and model these for others – especially those who disagree with us!
Each one of us can either find or create opportunities to influence others in these ways. In my own community there has been a monthly conversation called Let’s Talk America that invites people to discuss some of the most challenging issues of the day. Another program called Makeshift Coffeehouse is creating similar opportunities across the state. Nationally, organizations like National Institute for Civic Discourse (NICD), and League of Women Voters are creating initiatives to revive civility. Courses that teach these skills are offered in every college and University.
Most powerfully, each of us can learn and practice the skills of constructive dialogue on a daily basis, in our workplaces, our communities and civic organizations, to model them for others and demonstrate that the best outcomes are the ones that work for all of us. Let’s make it a movement!
Diane Kenty wrote a similar piece for the Portland press herald that raises some other great points, you can find it here. Diane’s personal revelations are a powerful demonstration of openness, empathy and willingness to engage in constructive dialogue about difficult social issues.
Do we all have the courage to be part of a movement to revive civility?