Last month, I had the opportunity to speak about civility at the Iowa Municipal Management Institute. Here are some of the key points of my talk.
Politeness and Civility
Although politeness and civility are linked, they serve different purposes. Politeness often implies taking care to act in such a way that you don’t rock the boat: it smooths things over without exposing disagreement.
Civility is about being able to disagree or express a difference of opinion in a respectful manner. In a governing body, we want to hear differences of opinions and perspectives and then navigate these to find common ground to make decisions based on those shared perspectives. Politeness might support social interactions, but civility supports good governance.
To Foster Civility
Focus on dialogue. The purpose of dialogue is to find common understanding. Dialogue encourages the exchange of ideas. In dialogue the opposite of talking is listening.
Dialogue is different from debate, which is about winning an argument. In an argument, being rude is generally expected.
Dialogue is even different from discussion, which has the purpose of convincing someone to see your point of view. In discussion, the opposite of talking is waiting.
The Importance of Roles and Responsibilities
In a governing body, we can help foster civility by making sure that everyone understands their role and the roles of others in an organization.
It’s also important that members of a governance body understand how things work—the policies, the procedures, and the systems in place that guide how things are done. There are a number of ways to make sure that people understand these things. We can hold orientation sessions. If we want to discuss and establish group norms for behavior, we can hold a team-building session. In my experience, strategic planning or goal-setting sessions can help a group illuminate the policies, procedures, and systems that are already in place. A planning session also might cover ways that a group can improve its policies, procedures, and systems to achieve shared goals. Making sure that people understand their roles and the roles of others in an organization helps foster an environment that supports dialogue. Setting expectations for civil behavior within groups and organizations encourages people to act accordingly. The goal in helping people UNDERSTAND their roles and responsibilities is to have them ACT accordingly.
Structure Meetings to Encourage Civil Engagement
In public meetings, meeting procedures provide structure to our public exchange of ideas—this structure can help foster civility.
Most public bodies have established procedures for their meetings. These include guidelines regarding time limits for comments; the content of, and the language used in, comments, and meeting behavior guidelines. It’s important that these are consistently observed for all speakers.
The design of a meeting can also help foster civility. Details like a conveniently located, appropriately-sized meeting room, adequate and comfortable seating, a clear agenda, including start and end times, appropriate amplification for all speakers, and a skilled facilitator or presiding officer make a difference when you are bringing people together to foster dialogue and understanding. We often overlook the role that a sense of hospitality and graciousness can have in making people feel like others are interested in hearing their ideas and understanding their perspectives.
Fostering civility is critical to our abilities to make decisions that help our communities and organizations move forward. If we can keep an eye on the big picture, hopefully, we can manage our comments and behavior create the environment necessary to discuss complex issues, find common ground, and make decisions that help build strong communities and strong organizations.