3 Rules of Civility

As I teach about “civility”–showing politeness and regard for others–I realize how foreign of a concept kindness has become.  I ask the class why it’s so hard to be civil.  We practice writing arguments that persuade others, and adopting a civil tone makes all the difference when trying to persuade. 

“It’s more interesting to be angry and mean,” one student insists. 

It’s true, perhaps.  It’s more entertaining to insult another person than to argue with fairness.  And it’s easier. 

It’s hard to be kind.  It’s nearly impossible to be civil when we feel so passionately about our beliefs.  We speak from our anger and our passion.  

But our anger and passion do not always persuade.  

If we want to begin to have conversations that change individual minds (at least in today’s communication climate), we have to begin from a point of fairness.   

What does it mean to be fair?  We mention 3 ways:  recognizing a good intention within the opposition, uncovering the story that generated their viewpoint, and summarizing their opinion without condescension.  Only then have we fostered a suitable communication climate where people feel heard and ready to engage. 

“This is hard,” we all agree.  It’s hard because if we feel condescending–if we feel superior–it inevitably comes out in our speaking and writing.  So we have to admit some difficult things about ourselves.  We have to admit we don’t know everything.  We have to concede points and believe that our opposition’s viewpoint might contain an element of truth.  We have to treat that enemy with dignity even if we disagree with their point of view. 

Only then can we hear people.  Only then can we open the door to a conversation.  Civility in conversation means we are discussing, not fighting.  We are finding common ground, figuring out what we believe, and journeying together towards truth. 

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  1. This is great advice on persuasion, Heather! I think others are less likely to become defensive when they feel they are heard. I particularly like the idea to summarize their views without condescension (in my field we call that “reflection”) 🙂

  2. Civility seems even harder to find on some blog comments or message boards. Sometimes the rudeness is staggering. Often the offenders do it in the name of “honest/constructive criticism” when it is not. What to do?

    I am glad to hear that there are teachers and professors who are taking on this subject in their classrooms. Thank you!