Some prefer sober deliberation, healthy dialogue and respectful debate in the process of setting priorities, choosing leaders, and making decisions. Others are quoted as advocating being “blunt,” “turning up the volume,” and no longer being “nice and pleasant and proper.” This style has led some to view them as employing personal attacks, disruption of meetings, backroom agenda-setting, name-calling and parliamentary quarrels to make their points and get their way.
On my jacket I wear a button that reads, “Civility is Catching: Pass It On!” This column is my effort to do just that.
The button is distributed by the Institute for Civility, which defines civility as “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” In addition to politeness, civility involves “disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, staying present with those with whom we disagree, and negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard and nobody is ignored. And civility begins with us.”
There are basically five approaches to dealing with disagreement and conflict — withdrawing, smoothing, compromising, forcing, and negotiating. They differ in terms of the value we place on our relationships versus our goals.
• We withdraw when we throw in the towel and give up any hope of achieving our goals or preserving the relationship. We prefer keeping safe and protecting ourselves to what seems like the only alternative — battling it out to a “winner take all” resolution. “Those who fight and run away live to fight another day.”
• When we strive to smooth or harmonize a situation, we avoid conflict by giving up on our goals in order to preserve our relationship with those with whom we disagree. We accommodate to their wishes in hopes they will reciprocate by staying in relationship with us. The relationship tends to be superficial, however, as we are not being real with each other.
• Compromise is the “art of the possible,” the give-and-take approach. “Half a loaf is better than none.” “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” We bargain to achieve as much of what we want as we can get and let others do the same. Neither of us is fully satisfied, but we can learn to live with the outcome. We maintain a relationship — of sorts — but it doesn’t go very deep.
• Forcing is the win/lose approach. “We will employ any means, fair or foul, to achieve our goals. Attack, insult, deception, disruption, manipulation, even violence — all are fair game. Our values, beliefs, principles, profits, control take precedence over the personhood and dignity of our opponents. “Win at all costs; the relationship be damned.”
• Negotiation involves honest, direct, mutual sharing of one’s goals and beliefs while encouraging the other to do the same. We listen carefully, state frankly and openly, examine our assumptions, brainstorm alternatives, seek consensus, and patiently and persistently stay with the process until a win/win solution is reached.
Civility can be employed in all these approaches except forcing. But only in negotiating — and to a lesser extent in compromising — is it possible to gain a satisfying, productive result. Whether the issue is budget priorities, same-sex marriage, health insurance, food stamps for the poor, tax cuts for the rich, immigration reform, raising the minimum wage, or pro-life vs. pro-choice, we serve our cause best, have the best chance of achieving our goals and building alliances for struggles lying ahead when we practice civility in the process.
If we withdraw from the debate, we forfeit the chance to find a solution or influencing the outcome. If we attempt to smooth over differences to give the appearance that “all is well,” we merely postpone the conflict, letting it fester until it becomes irresolvable. If we seek to achieve our goals by demeaning, attacking, or destroying the other, we lose the respect and trust of the larger community — and with it the possibility of building lasting solutions.
But if we treat others with respect, listen for understanding, try to understand their reasons and needs, manifest patience and humility, acknowledge our own fallibility, show a willingness to forgive, speak the truth in love, and honor the dignity and sacred worth of all as sons and daughters of God, we have the best chance of building and maintaining a real democracy.
Civility begins with us.