The Power of Civility

This is a guest post by Bill McClendon. Bill has practiced banking, real estate, and commercial transaction law for almost fifty years. He has led seminars and taught both professional and graduate students at such distinguished institutions as the Banking School of the South, American Institute of Banking, Louisiana State University Law School, Western Carolina University , and the Clayton Center for Entrepreneurial Law at the University of Tennessee. Bill is the author of Deal Makers: Negotiating More Effectively Using Timeless Values. Bill has four children and ten grandchildren for whom he is building a tree house. He enjoys hiking, gardening, woodworking, outdoor cooking, tennis, golf, and teaching adult-study classes in the Episcopal Church. He currently lives in North Carolina with his wife.

“I’ll never forget how that person made me feel” Just think a moment, “How often have I had this thought?” You may forget what others say to you, but you never forget how they made you feel. Thus illustrates the power of civility.

Here we are at the beginning of a new millennium, speeding along in an increasingly complex age of faster communication. We feel challenged by new technology. We ask ourselves, “What can we do to improve relationships with family, friends, and business associates? Where can we find the answers?”

As you look for insights, you will discover that the principles of civility have not changed over the years. Rather, its power to change your life has intensified. The quality of your social interaction still remains of critical concern. The way that you treat others and speak to others forms a crucial measure of your success in life. In other words, life is what your relationships make it. And civility is what allows you to connect successfully with others. It is the glue that holds relationships together.

The power of civility is based on respect, restraint, and responsibility. As we make real contact with this basic truth, we can make it part of our everyday thinking. When we incorporate our own experiences and insights, we enrich the process.

Being more civil requires that we become more sensitive. Over five centuries ago a leading scholar stated that the average human “looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, inhales without smelling, …talks without thinking.” Leonardo Da Vinci’s words speak strongly to us today.

In our culture we are taught to be civil to our neighbors, even those we don’t particularly like. Civility includes being open to learning, especially from friends and family. Being silent and listening, using words only when necessary, sends a strong signal that we respect the message and the messenger.

Acknowledging others often includes making space for them in traffic, opening a door, stepping aside. This acknowledging of others is at the heart of civility. It is the stuff civility is made of. It often involves only saying a genuine “Hello” or “Good Morning,” or nodding in recognition of and respect for the other person.

Perhaps the most challenging civility moments involve actively listening to a person with whom we strongly disagree. Compromise of differences without hostile confrontation requires not just politeness but flexibility. This doesn’t mean we have to comply all the time with the preference of others. To the contrary, being civil only requires us to make the conscious effort to harmonize our plans with those of others whenever we have no compelling reasons to do otherwise. We show respect for the other person’s opinions and acknowledge differences without threatening or harboring resentment.

This focus on being civil does not preclude you from also being assertive, or from exercising moral courage to stand up for your core values. Civility does not require avoidance of conflict, nor does it guarantee a consensus. It does, however, encourage discussions that may lead to consensus. In order to be effective in negotiating, you may have to show that although the situation is upsetting, you have the power to endure. This forms a dynamic tension with the gentle force of civility. Although there is strong disagreement, and you attack with patience the problem, not the other person, you can still be civil.

When strong emotions are likely to be present, we need to anticipate that exercising civility could be difficult unless we focus ahead of time on controlling our undesirable emotions by a strong commitment to be civil. Commitment can be our most important behavior. In other words, we encourage our emotions to commit to civility. We actively listen to learn rather than to react.

As you listen in this way, you send non-verbal signals that you are trying to keep an open mind to build meaningful connections. You show that you want to agree, that you are looking for all the possibilities of an agreement. You thank the other person for acts of kindness and patience. You begin to see kindness as a strength. By treating other people with kindness you are, in a sense, urging them to do the same.

In addition, we must also show that we are actively listening through eye contact, posture, a nod, an appropriate short comment. As explained in theDeal Makers chapter entitled “Listen with Four Ears,” we remain present-moment oriented in order to recognize the communication sense the other person prefers. We use that mode in our short comment to match the sensory preference, for example, ” I see what you are saying” [eyes]. “You have a point there” [ reason]. “I hear you” [ears]. “I would feel the same way too” [feelings].

To conclude, we can easily avoid the problems of rage, rudeness, defiance and disrespect and cement wonderful, lasting relationships by remaining mindful of the huge benefits flowing from the power of civility.

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