Civil is as civil does

After the Phoenix shootings, there was a lot of chatter about the disgraceful lack of civility in our country. Any disagreement, small or large,  seems to spark rude, scathing, ad hominem remarks and/ or violent actions. This boorish discourse, some argue, makes it impossible for people to truly “hear” one another, let alone persuade or be persuaded by the other’s point of view.

Matthew Dowd, former president George W. Bush’s pollster said, “There is a toxic nature to Washington that thrives on food fights and thrives on controversy and thrives on people not getting  along.”

President Obama said, “Civility [also] requires relearning how to disagree without being disagreeable;  understanding…that civility is not a sign of weakness.”

We sixty somethings have strong opinions, arrived at through life experiences, extensive reading and study. And we know we are right.  I’m always startled to learn that someone I know well doesn’t agree with me on many subjects- political, social, or moral. How could she not agree with me. My position is obviously the correct one. But if I value this person’s friendship and don’t want to offend her, is there anything positive I can say that doesn’t make me look like I’m backing down?  How might I respond to younger co-workers who deviate from my “unerring” views when I’ve been in the field since they were toddlers? Should we just agree to disagree?

One powerful approach to defusing tension was offered by Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro . They suggest using metaphors to help people work through their differences. It’s a way of talking about the shared experience, positive or negative, without being explict or direct.

So, if a colleague begins to privilege high tech over high touch, I can turn to him and say: ” It feels as if we are caught in a tide that is pulling us into dangerous waters. Let’s change course.”  When an uneasy silence falls between me and my friend around a hot button issue about which we disagree, I can say: “A chill seems to have come into the room. Can we warm things up?

In a similar vein, Robin Domeniconi, senior vice president and chief brand officer for a media company, introduced a concept to her employees that smoothes out working relationships: MRI- most respectful interpretation. She believes that you can say anything you want to if you do it in the right way. You just need to preface your remarks with: “I’m just curious, and I want to understand what you’re saying better. Right now my point of view is different. So can you help me understand why you wanted to do this?  

It does work, though it feels a bit contrived at first. It’s worth a try.


Categories: wisdom

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