The First Tool of Civility: Pay Attention

by Orlaine I. Gabert, Door County Civility Project

The first tool of civility is to pay attention. 

“Attention!” says the sergeant. All recruits straighten their body, arms at their sides, head facing forward. This military version of attention is one of obedience.

Although this rigid body position does not fit any of our conversations, the lesson learned here is that we first need to adjust our body position to show that we’re paying attention. This is because often when someone wants to speak to us, our body is doing something else: reading, making dinner or working at a task. 

We need to stop everything we’re doing and turn our body to face the speaker in a comfortable position, with our eyes on her or his face and an expression of interest on our face. We may smile and nod to confirm our interest while the speaker finishes what he or she wants to say.

Second, we were in our own thoughts, with our mind working hard to address our own tasks. Again, we need to shut down all our own mental business and set it aside during this conversation. It may help to take a long, quiet breath and think, “Now I am leaving my thoughts in order to pay attention to the speaker.” Our mind needs to remain in this mode until the person is done speaking.

Of course, there are going to be times when we can do neither immediately, so we must ask the speaker to give us the time we need because we’re unable to give our full attention in that moment. Humans truly can pay attention to only one thing at a time.

When we’re fully in the mode of paying attention, we’re ready to use the second tool of civility: Listen. This will be covered next month. 

The Door County Civility Project, a community-based initiative, will cover the nine principles of civility through these monthly columns.