By Earl Mathers

"Civility is not a sign of weakness.”
         —John F. Kennedy, U.S. President

The history of the United States can be characterized by the struggles and challenges our nation has endured, including civil war. Although social strife sometimes persists long after peace has been nominally secured, we have overcome these numerous conflicts sufficiently well to safeguard our national identity and continuing viability.

Overcoming these crises has been facilitated by leaders who managed to maintain a degree of civility in their dialogue with the opposition, which led to dispute resolution. According to a recent survey from the National Institute for Civil Discourse, 75 percent of Americans believe incivility is a major problem in society today.

The lack of civility is a more insidious destructive force than civil war, and it is producing disastrous consequences, including gridlock, ineffective dispute resolution, polarization, and a decline in the quality of American life.

Despite the legitimacy of contrary points of view on a variety of subjects, the vitriolic expression of those ideas as a persistent trend in American society has led to near absolute polarization in many legislative chambers, especially notable in the U.S. Congress.

As a consequence, the resolution of many of our most vexing problems has virtually ceased in favor of political one-upmanship. The net result is diminished productivity and the avoidance of responsible decision making.

In the place of productive dialogue leading to solutions, we observe political figures, members of the media, and others talking past each other as opposed to speaking with each other. Often their statements and attitudes are so rigid and antagonistic that future compromise becomes impossible. This leads to political inertia.

A Crisis of Incivility

The following excerpt from the July 2016 Psychology Today article, "Is Civility Dead in America?", seems particularly appropriate to this discussion: "Additionally, observational learning theory suggests that when leaders and those held in high esteem in our culture behave in uncivil ways their behavior is modeled and repeated by others.

When, for example, celebrity CEOs, presidential candidates, and other high-ranking politicians, sports stars, and Hollywood celebrities behave in uncivil ways (and get away with it), it gets modeled and thus repeated by others."

This crisis of incivility has become a chronic condition of public life. Consequently, incivility is compromising the success of American society and especially the viability of the government. We should not, however, assign the blame exclusively to our leaders. As a people, Americans have become highly desensitized to behaviors that would have been outrageous not so many years ago. Indeed, in some circles this misconduct is cheered on and rewarded.

If the objective is to devise solutions to problems or to leverage additional resources so as to implement those solutions, shaming others, exchanging vulgarities, and making blanket indictments against the opposition are unlikely to promote trust and collaboration.

Practices in Civility

The list assembled below does not include any groundbreaking ideas. In fact, the methods of practicing civility in dealing with others are well known, if frequently ignored. If they are applied, these commonsense suggestions will have a definitive impact on overcoming the increasingly dire consequences of incivility:

1.Allow the other person to speak and listen empathetically while he or she is speaking. Stephen Covey said, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." This continues to be great advice decades after the publication of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

2. Refrain from immediately blaming the other side or your opponent for everything that goes wrong. Assigning blame to someone else is a defense mechanism at times, and on other occasions is used to denigrate others. If we pause for introspection from time to time, we may find that we share the responsibility for specific mishaps.

Even if we are completely innocent, assigning blame puts people on the defensive and rarely leads to effective problem solving or progress. Author Steve Maraboli offered great insight on the blame game with this statement: "It's time to care; it's time to take responsibility; it's time to lead; it's time for a change; it's time to be true to our greatest self; it's time to stop blaming others."

3. Recognize that people aren't always morally bankrupt or mentally defective if they disagree with you. We are all subject to a number of influences and biases. Everyone has a tendency to define reality in accordance with their personal beliefs. Be objective and acknowledge other opinions.

Merriam-Webster defines the "loyal opposition" in the following manner: "a minority party especially in a legislative body whose opposition to the party in power is constructive, responsible, and bounded by loyalty to fundamental interests and principles." Such a definition clearly indicates that there is considerable value in hearing alternative points of view.

4. Speak in measured tones and avoid shouting people down to win arguments. Such victories are short-lived and produce lingering resentment. Displays of anger rarely inspire confidence, and well-reasoned counterpoints will likely foster greater support. In Leadership Jazz (page 135), author Max DePree wrote that "Leaders exemplify personal restraint in their behavior." This statement applies to so much that public leaders do, including how they express themselves.

5. Avoid social media diatribes. Thoroughly consider the impact of your words before hitting send. Have a respected adviser review your statements if you have any doubts. The practice of engaging your brain first obviously applies to speech as well.

Quoted in Forbes magazine on July 8, 2013, social media authority Steve Olenski made this great suggestion: "Pause to put emotions in check. Never post a comment when you're feeling emotionally triggered. Never! If you wait four hours you're likely to respond differently."

6. Speak the truth and avoid lying or exaggerating to convince people. When in doubt about the facts, it is reasonable to say, "I don't know, but I will check into it." Benjamin Franklin once said, "Half the truth is a whole lie." Although it is often tempting to manipulate the facts to our advantage, doing so ultimately compromises an individual's integrity.

7. Seek the common ground. Most of the greatest triumphs of humanity were the result of collaboration and, yes, even compromise. In reference to interactions between couples, the Gottman Institute relates the following: "Remember, you can only be influential if you accept influence. Compromise never feels perfect. Everyone gains something and everyone loses something."

The clear benefit of engaging in compromise is that you overcome hostilities and arrive at a realistic course of action.

The Greater Good

To revitalize American society, our leaders need to recognize there is far greater value in achieving long-term goals that fulfill the American dream than in short-term political victories. It is possible to deal with key points of contention openly if both parties are committed to producing broad-ranging, long-term benefits rather than short-term personal advantage.

It is imperative that leaders work consistently toward the greater good if we are to avoid the forfeiture of our competitive advantages as a nation. The obligation of an informed and engaged citizenry is to hold leaders accountable for overcoming conflict and advancing society.

Although many appointed officials are compelled to tread cautiously through political minefields, it is desirable to encourage civility among both administrators and politicians, regardless of how emotionally charged the situation may be. There are certainly times when we can suggest de-escalation.

It is imperative to restore the public trust and turn the back the tide of cynicism that threatens the stability of our country. America in the twenty-first century desperately needs leaders who can break the gridlock, cross ideological barriers, and get things done.

Earl Mathers is county manager, Gaston County, North Carolina (

Editor's Note: This article was first published as a blog on ICMA's website June 15, 2017.


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