By Thom Little, Ph.D.

As I suspect many of you know, for over the last year, I have added the role of  SLLF’s Legislative Liaison to the National Institute for Civil Discourse to my list of responsibilities. In that capacity, I help coordinate civility workshops and other sessions in state legislatures across the country. Because of that, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what civility is and is not. This has been especially true in recent weeks as I have watched tempers flare and members be reprimanded, censured, or expelled for their floor actions and comments in state legislatures across the nation.

Let me start with what civility is not. 

Civility is not Abandoning Your Principles. First, some may think that being civil means giving in and giving up, compromising your principles, and letting the other side win. They suggest that being civil is a sign of weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Respecting the opinions of others while honoring your own values takes a deep seeded strength and leads to better decisions.

Civility Is Not “Warm Fuzzies.” When some hear the term civility, they envision a bunch of young people smiling, sitting dreamily around a campfire while holding hands, and singing “Kumbaya,” or some other feel-good chorus. That is nice, but not civility. Being civil does not mean we have to feel warm and fuzzy toward each other, but it does mean we should respect one another as well as respecting each person’s right to his or her perspective and opinion.

Civility is Not a Tool to Silence the Minority. Lately, in the news it seems that some have begun to use civility to silence those who feel they need to speak loudly in order to be heard, particularly those with a minority perspective or opinion. Civility should be used to make sure that everyone has a chance to be heard, not as an opportunity to silence those who struggle to be heard.

So, now that we know what civility is not, let’s turn to what civility is:(1)

Civility is Engaging Differences, Not Ignoring Them. Being civil does not mean that we sweep differences under the rug, but instead it means discussing those differences in a way that encourages each side to see the perspective of the other. Engaging differences constructively can lead to new insights and better decisions. Drawing on the range of experience and perspective can feed innovative solutions that leave us all better off in tangible ways.

Civility is Listening for Understanding. During conversations many of us have a tendency not to truly listen. We may hear someone’s first comments and make assumptions about where the conversation will go, or we may be thinking about how we will counter his or her points. To listen for understanding, it helps to enter the conversation with curiosity and an open mind to really listen to what the other person is saying instead of listening to rebut what they are saying.

Civility is Engaging with Empathy and Humility. Respecting and empathizing with a different perspective is not the same as agreeing with it. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible (even beneficial) to respect the beliefs of others while at the same time honoring the dictates of our own conscience. We are more likely to find common solutions when we recognize that other reasonable and moral people can reach different conclusions than we do. When we recognize that we don’t know everything, we can benefit from hearing different insights from others and perhaps learn a thing or two. 

Civility is Principled Advocacy. Political rhetoric today is too often about personal attacks and character assassination instead of about the issues themselves. Civility means making your case on its merits without resorting to attacks on the character of those with different views. It also means you don’t seize on trivial missteps or misstatements they make. Persuading others that your position leads to better outcomes is more effective at building support than tearing down your opponent.

Civility is Looking for Common Ground. As we engage our differences, it’s important to remember and articulate our common ground. Because it’s easy to fixate on our differences, it helps to acknowledge shared values, aspirations, and experience and to call out points of agreement. When working with others, make an effort to look for common ground, that sweet spot where everyone feels like their perspective was listened to, considered, and engaged. I cannot guarantee we will always find that sweet spot, but if we don’t try, I can guarantee we will never find it.

We’ve always had our disagreements and we always will. That is appropriate for a healthy democracy. We’ve never fully realized our ideals. Still, we share a commitment to perfecting the promise of American self-government. That commitment, when realized and acted on in a respectful and civil manner, can lead to a better world for us all. This is, after all, what we all are striving for. Let’s give civility a try and see what happens . . . . You never know, it might work!

(1) This is a summary of the Key Principles and Best Practices from the National Institute for Civil Discourse.