Civility means caring for one’s own needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. It means listening with empathy and compassion even if you don’t agree with the person, trying to understand why they feel the way they do.
George H.W. Bush was a perfect example of someone who understood the importance of civility. In the Washington Post he is described as someone who, “knew that compassion and kind manners help a person establish strong and postivie relationships. He held dear the core diplomatic belief that a leader should make friends, not enemies – and that leadership and civility are mutually reinforcing.” In a letter to actor Chevy Chase, Bush wrote, “I hate the issues that divide, and I hope you and I will always be able to see the other guy’s point of view.”
Unlike Bush, most of us seem to have lost the skill to listen. We listen with half of our attention while the other half is formulating a defensive response. This leads to neither party feeling heard and both digging in to their respective positions with no one’s needs being met. I can see this with today’s political leaders when they call each other names and dig in behind their political belief without ever trying to understand the other side. I see this in personal relationships where someone takes a statement as a personal affront instead of trying to find out why the person feels the way they do – yes I do this too, but I am working on it. We’re more worried about proving who’s right which takes the focus off of empathy and put’s it on the need to be right. And if I’m right, that means you’re wrong. That just leaves the other person feeling defensive.
Instead of resolution, everyone goes away angry.
We could reach more compromise and meet everyone’s needs much more often if we would set aside all of our thoughts and just listen. Ask questions to try to understand what their needs are. Don’t offer solutions, don’t judge, don’t agree or disagree, just listen.
Sometimes just being understood is enough.
When we’re defensive, we can’t truly hear what the other person is saying. Now we are up in our own heads, making up a story about what that person just said.
Perfect example, black lives matter. The background was “black people being killed by police”. The statement “Black Lives Matter” was saying our need for safety and fairness are not being met. That’s all.
Those are basic human needs that we all have. Even if you don’t agree with what they are saying, you should be able to empathize with their need for safety and fairness.
What was the common reaction to “black lives matter”? A very defensive, white lives matter or all lives matter. Nobody was saying they don’t. It wasn’t about whites or everyone else. It was a plea for understanding that blacks are feeling unsafe and feel they are not being treated fairly. That’s all.
That was such a clear example of not listening, being defensive and reacting with anger. That seems to be the way more and more people are communicating. They are locked in to their beliefs and they are going to defend them to the end. Reacting defensively pretty much guarantees you will not get what you want.
I go back to the definition of civility because I think it bears repeating:
Civility means caring for one’s own needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s.
No one is suggesting you agree with someone just to be civil. No one is suggesting you do whatever the other person wants just to be civil. It’s about fully listening, trying to understand what the other person is feeling and why they are feeling the way they do. Not just sympathize with someone but truly empathize with them. When you empathize you are truly trying to put yourself in their shoes. To feel what they are feeling.
Continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. If you are not getting the results you want by defending yourself and insulting the other person maybe it’s time to try another way.
As always, I’d appreciate it if you would help me get the word out about the Matt Kurtz Kindness Award of $250 (nominate someone who inspires you) and the Matt Kurtz Kindness Grant of $250 (submit an act of kindness you would do with $250).