A Civility Pep Talk

by Susan McAninch

We do not need statistics (though there are plenty of them) to support the fact that Americans are deeply worried about the state of incivility in our society and in our daily lives. We witness it; we feel it; we experience it. We need only to look to some of our political leaders and social media. Many of us have experienced incivility in our personal lives, with strangers, friends and family members alike. Given the grand scale of uncivil discourse and behavior today, individuals can feel pretty small by comparison. It would be easy to give up hope. What can one person realistically do in his daily life to decrease incivility?

A broad, philosophical perspective about this question can be found in a current Wisconsin Public Radio series about hope ( Those interviewed describe how people remain determined to live meaningful, hopeful, optimistic lives, even in the midst of the stark contradiction between their public despair and private hope. They (we) do this largely by using our innate optimism in the belief that we have control over our own lives and that what we do now matters to the future of our families and communities. Hope can be a verb – about doing something, i.e., taking some action to influence the future. We strive to make a difference where we have some control, which is exactly where civility has to start: with ourselves.

Recently, Keith Allred, the new director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, was interviewed about citizens’ worries for the country’s future, given the rising tide of incivility. He was asked the same question, “What can one person do in his daily life to decrease incivility?” In searching the literature for others’ answers to this question, I found overwhelming support for Allred’s response: that the simplest, most obvious and most effective action a person can take in his daily life to decrease incivility is to listen first.

Listen first. It’s that easy – and that hard.

The idea is that by reaching out to listen first, without interruption, judgment or our own agenda – to be fully present – we are likely to find a whole person there. We might not ever come to agree with each other, or even to like each other. But by seeing a whole person who is no more or less important than we are, we are laying the groundwork for a genuine relationship and for effective communication that can bridge deep divides. Genuine, effective communication is the foundation required to decrease incivility.

It takes effort to learn to listen in order to understand because most of us are much more attuned to listen to reply, defend, blame, compete, argue or be right. But listening to understand is a skill and can be learned. Is there any one of us whose relationships would not benefit from learning to clear and quiet our mind, not interrupt, suspend judgment and our own agenda, check for understanding by offering feedback and stay present in the face of disagreement?

There’s no time like the present to be part of the hope for the future!