Is there ever a time when civility isn’t necessary? According to panelists at a recent Civic Engagement workshop, there is never a time to not be civil. Civility is often defined as courtesy or politeness. It can be hard to maintain when so many people have strong opinions on matters they consider important, but it can be done.
All of the panel members had significant experience serving in public office, positions which often put them at the center of heated debates. They each explained how they have tried to demonstrate civility during their years of service and how it has proven to be beneficial. They also shared insight and advice on how to practice and encourage civility.
See Political Opponents as Real People
“Realize, that truly, two incredible, smart, educated, informed individuals who want the same thing, can differ passionately about how to get there.”
Derek Brown spoke about the importance of seeing political opponents as real people. He has made it his personal objective to leave any confrontation having made a new friend, even if they cannot agree on an issue at hand. As a Republican, he said that some of his best friends on Capitol Hill were Democrats.
Brown believes that the somewhat negative connotation of politics is largely due to the media focus on conflict. He said that this focus gives the public an inaccurate depiction of what actually occurs on a daily basis. He also cautioned the audience to avoid buying into stereotypes and generalizations about certain political parties and politicians.
He said: “Maybe 65 to 70 percent of all the bills we vote on in the Capital come out with a unanimous or near unanimous vote tally. That’s because there are a lot of things, far more than you ever realize, that we actually do agree on.”
When we approach politics from that winner takes all mentality, we end up dehumanizing the other people…”
Mayor JoAnn Seghini is a firm believer in the power of good, active listening. She has made it a habit, when listening to the concerns and desires of her citizens, to always repeat back to them what she thinks she has heard. Listening and clarifying opens the door to a good conversation, she believes.
Mayor Seghini also believes strongly that everyone should be given a chance to share their opinion and be heard.
She says: “Civility is listening. Civility is giving everyone a chance to speak; verbally or non-verbally.”
“Civility … is the glue that holds us together in society. By setting up a system where you give everyone a chance to be heard, you make it possible for civility to occur.”
She encouraged people to tell others good things, to take time to listen, to rephrase what they think they heard… and give people a chance to share their opinions in ways that recognize their personal identity and dignity. “That to me is civility in government and in life,” she said.
Know the Full Story
Mark Seastrand explained the importance of knowing the full story, as an elected official, and watching out for group think.
He spoke about what he called the pendulum of perception, meaning that everyone has a different perspective. He encouraged working with small groups and individuals to piece together the full story.
Citizens can help by recognizing that public officials are truly trying to make the community a better place for everyone.
He said that bad information tends to travel much faster than good and accurate information.
“Attack the issues, not the person.”
Mayor Jeff Acerson said that public officials must be an advocate for every citizen. Political positions or parties should not cloud that principle.
As Mayor, he oversaw a road project that would affect the land of many citizens. He met individually with each person that was to be affected and listened to their concerns. In this way, he gave each of them a voice and was their advocate. He found that this approach distilled a lot of frustrations that could have turned into major problems.
He also emphasized the importance of being constructive, not destructive in all communication and understanding our own responsibility and influence.
He cautioned everyone to ask themselves: “Are you a builder? Are you constructing or are you destructing?”
How has civility benefited your community?
Feature photo courtesy of Flickr.