To Follow the Crowd... or Not?

“Do you think civil discourse will ever return?” asked one businessman of another.

“No, I don’t,” he replied.

To hear this businessman—someone whose experience and opinion I respected—be so blunt and matter of fact about his belief about the end of decency was discouraging. I’d expected him to champion a more positive outlook.

To be fair, there are days when I despair for the apparent loss of civility and respect for the opinions of others, but I can’t accept that civil discourse has permanently gone the way of the rotary phone. That belief is just too hopeless. Too bleak. Too dismissive of people’s inner goodness and abilities to learn, be open, and self-regulate.

The Problem with Incivility

A few years ago, I was quick to jump into contentious discussions—especially when I thought the other person’s position was wrong. I felt compelled to show them the errors in their thinking. Given their pushback, they obviously felt the same way about my thinking! Because of biases and certainty, these discussions sometimes became rude, even condescending. They were always nonproductive.

One day, in an early morning coffee shop meeting, a colleague and I had planned to talk about the budget for the nonprofit in which we both involved. Our discussion became passionate, revealing that our respective visions about the future of the organization were very different. Neither one of us was willing to thoughtfully listen to what the other had to say.

What had been intended as an exchange of ideas escalated into a decidedly uncivil argument. My colleague made the disagreement personal when she took several mean-spirited shots at my qualifications. My prior work history had all been in for-profit organizations; hers all in nonprofit.

Her barbs drew unbidden tears, which only fueled her fire. She unloaded on me for failing to see things her way and support her position. Our relationship was emphatically frosty after that day. We spoke only when we had to.

For a long time, I blamed her for our discussion spiraling out of control. Blaming her made her the bad person and let me off the hook. I was right, and she was really, really wrong. Pretty self-serving, eh?

A wise friend to whom I recounted the event—and my reaction to it—kindly suggested that I take a closer look at how I contributed as well. I’m glad she reminded me to step back and assess.

The Power of Civility

In truth, both of us were equally culpable that day. When she threw the first verbal dart about my budget proposals, all I had to do was respond with understanding, acknowledgment, and compassion—not throw a verbal dart of my own. I chose, just as she did, to be uncivil.

I had no control over what she said, but I had absolute, total control over how I responded. I could have de-escalated the argument instead of escalating it.

I could have used my power of personal control.

That power is why I disagree with the businessman’s assessment that civil discourse will never return. Such a belief dooms us all to a future of binary and combative I’m right and you’re wrong encounters. That conviction assumes that decency and respect for differences have been abandoned.

Can’t—won’t—go there. Too hopeless, too limiting, too powerless.

Each one of us has the power to control how we respond to incivility. It’s our choice to respond in kind—or not. These days, I choose not, no matter how hard that choice sometimes feels.

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