Expression - Persuasive communication

On Civility

Even in a dog-eat-dog world, it’s important to wag more and bark less.

I’d like to close this series on confident speaking by addressing a related topic that is getting a lot of attention.

In the wake of the tragic Arizona shootings earlier this month, our airwaves and news media have been saturated with calls for increased civility in American political discourse, and tonight we’ll probably see at least a pretense of it among the audience when the President delivers his State of the Union Address to Congress.

It’s a natural reaction: senseless acts force us to grope to make sense of them. Add this natural human tendency to a crowded, copy-cat media ecosystem constantly trying to force its way into our shrinking attention spans, and the explanation-du-jour will get its 15 minutes of fame, regardless of its merits.

There are two lines to this argument: incivility is wrong and there’s more of it now than at any other time in history. This post won’t follow either of these lines of argument. First, because I believe that being nasty to people generally is wrong, and that you don’t need another sermon on the subject. As to the second point, maybe we have become a nation of a__holes and boors, maybe not. I don’t think it can be answered because there’s no valid way to measure it and because the current media spotlight distorts serious consideration of the issue. (e.g. Just weeks before 9/11, Time magazine’s cover proclaimed “Summer of the Shark”.)

In this article, I’m going to follow a different line. Let’s instead focus on the practical pros and cons of civility in the workplace.

Pros: Does it work?

Civility in the workplace is good for the organization and good for you as a persuader. It’s good for the organization because it means that healthy disagreement can flourish. Healthy disagreement is that which sparks new ideas, and makes it safe for people to express them even when they’re not fully formed. If people are too concerned about being attacked for their ideas, they will censor themselves, and abort potentially good suggestions before they see the light of day.

Incivility is like the sand in the gears of discussion. It shuts down divergent thinking. It also causes people to wall themselves off into heavily-defended islands of opinion that won’t even consider the merits of another’s position.

Civility is also good for you personally because if others like you even when you disagree, they are more apt to do what you want. It puts into play two of Cialdini’s big six influence factors: likability and reciprocity.

Ronald Reagan’s reputation as the Great Communicator owed a lot to his likability—even his enemies liked him, and were willing to at least talk. People prefer to do things for people they like, and there are more apt to want to spend time with them, and face-time has also been shown to increase personal influence.

Being nice to others also invokes reciprocity; treating others well is a gift that they are apt to return. It’s also probably healthier for you in the long run. That’s only a guess on my part, but it’s a gamble I’m willing to take.

Cons: Are there downsides?

Disagreement is fundamental to the evolution of good ideas. Although they were wrong when they applied it to history, the Marxists were right in their idea that thesis plus anti-thesis could lead to synthesis. If everyone in the organization is too worried about offending others, ideas won’t be properly tested.

On a personal level, one of the downsides to adhering strictly to civility is that it’s like unilateral disarmament. If you become too concerned with getting along with everyone, you may shy away from conflict. Do this for too long and the bad guys will win. You’ve got to defend your position aggressively without attacking others personally, especially when they’re not playing by your rules.

How do you maintain civility when you’re being attacked?

On balance, I’d say the pros win, so let’s look at some keys to holding up your end and contributing to civility.

Have good arguments. I believe that ad hominem attacks are the lowest form of argument, and that is why there is so much incivility. People who don’t take the time to examine and understand their own positions, or don’t have the ability to string together a coherent argument in defense of their point of view, will get frustrated and lash out. Know your stuff, be able to defend it. Stick to the facts as much as possible, because facts are neutral.

Don’t take it personally. If your counterpart seems to be attacking you personally, it may be because they don’t have the capacity to come up with any better arguments. They’re really frustrated with themselves, not with you. As you get to know who these people are, don’t let them push your hot buttons and drag you into an argument. It’s like wrestling with a pig—the pig enjoys it and there’s no way you’re going to come out of it clean.

Consider the context. In their book Practical Wisdom, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe remind us that wisdom and good judgment come from a willingness to consider the specific situation and adjust accordingly. Rather than reacting to others’ attacks, consider the circumstances which have caused them to take that particular position and to act the way they are acting. This does not mean you have to tolerate boorish behavior, but it might give you enough insight to respond effectively.

Remember, it may be a dog-eat-dog world, but you should still strive to wag more and bark less!

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1 Comment
  • Love this, Jack!

    I appreciate how clearly you define some of the things to consider when promoting civility. It’s been my experience that some people worry that being civil means opening oneself up for being taken advantage of or unable to deal with conflict well.

    I’ve found that clearly defining what it means to interact with others in regardful/civil ways and what it means to be a push-over can be useful in this debate: being clear about one’s desires and being civil at the same time can be difficult, but I do not think civility and stength are mutually exclusive. In fact, I think a case can be made that being clear about our boundaries helps us be more civil due, in part at least, to the fact that it is easier to be regardful of others if we are more sure that we are not easily taken advantage of and are comfortable expressing our needs and desires to others.

    More great food for thought, Jack – thanks once again!

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