BY ROBERT DANISCH
On January 6, 2021, a protest over the 2020 Presidential election started out on the White House Ellipse, moved to the Capitol, and descended into chaos. The protesters carried Trump flags, Confederate flags, Gadsen flags, and signs urging the execution of legislators and Vice President Pence. A subset of protesters entered the Capitol building, in some cases by breaking windows, and stormed the Senate and House of Representatives chambers, while legislators and their staff were being evacuated. Protesters broke windows and furniture, riffled through the papers and notes of legislators, and smeared excrement on the walls and floors of what some consider to be the Temple of U.S. democracy. A number of people died as a result of the insurrection. While the investigations into what exactly happened on January 6, 2021, (and whose fault it was) will go on for years, we need to step back and just think about this: A disagreement over facts and evidence resulted in a riot. Not a protest or a march, like Black Lives Matter, Tea Party protests, or the 2017 Women’s March. On January 6, violence and destruction were part of the announced purposes for the rally. Regardless of whether people saw their cause as a noble one, this is exceptional in American history; while we have seen assassinations and literal bomb throwing at times, they have not been organized as if they were legitimate political action. Violence in American politics has always been seen as outside of the norms of our system. Until now.
In a way the story of January 6 is not all that surprising, since it seems like a continuation of a familiar pattern, all too common for too many of us. Political and cultural conversations escalate to verbal violence very quickly, and our public encounters seem to bring us to the brink of actual violence too easily. Every time you read a social media post that tightens your jaw and makes your blood pressure go up, you are participating in the emotional violence of our moment. Social media thrives on clicks and shares, and anger drives these more reliably than anything else. The big picture of the Capitol riot is reflected in the smaller moments of our lives: We don’t listen to one another, and our public lives seem more frequently marked by anxiety, stress, and tension. Poor listening habits, along with an inability to have meaningful, positive conversations with people that have different beliefs, creates a world in which differences become a tinderbox for violence, destruction, animosity, and resentment.
But we have hope. We know how to build a world in which difference is not just a source of stress and acrimony, or a wedge to make potential friends into real enemies. We know what communication practices work to build relationships and foster friendships. We know what habits we can adopt to help transform toxic interactions that leave all parties to them feeling aggrieved, unheard, and angry into positive moments of constructive engagement that allow us to hold onto our dignity and our values. There is a name for those habits and practices: strong civility. Being civil to others is not just about being nice or showing that you know the basic rules of etiquette. That’s why the adjective “strong” is part of this description. I’m not talking about which fork to use at dinner or when and how to word a wedding invitation. I’m talking about powerful communication habits and practices, which can keep difficult conversations going and create a world in which differences can be managed constructively. We can use strong civility to learn to live well with one another and act without the impulse to treat others as enemies to destroy or diminish.
Strong civility is the ability to engage respectfully with others in ways that can create meaningful connections across differences. Those connections are essential for generating change and for maintaining the delicate social fabric that makes our lives possible. Now more than ever we seem lost in a sea of divisive acrimony. It’s as if many of us live in different worlds with different facts, different agendas, and different motivations. How do we manage to bridge those differences? This may be the most important question in our political and social lives right now. Strong civility can be a communication roadmap to follow that will allow us to effectively engage all of the various characters in our lives (our racist uncle, our QAnon-believing aunt, our most difficult professional colleague, or our political enemies). Much excellent communication scholarship can be synthesized around the concept of strong civility and used to teach people how to engage others in ways that will generate systemic, non-violent change. Communication scholars already know which practices build relationships and which practices lead to violence, resentment, and the end of relationships. The distinction between the practices of constructive engagement or destructive violence lie at the core of any communication ethics.
Let me be as clear as I can: Increasing practices of strong civility reduces polarization, animosity, and resentment and allows us to have productive, problem-solving conversations. Increasing those communication practices also diminishes the chances that our encounters will result in violence. This is an ethical imperative in a time so deeply marked by hatred between fellow citizens. These practices enable a process, without determining the outcome. Too often we think about our public interactions like a zero-sum game. We think we need to win, to vanquish our opponents by scoring the most points and defending our position with the right kind of evidence and passion. But there are other options. We don’t need to view our conversations in this way, as if communication were a sport that we were trying desperately to win. The vision of communication, and argument, that advocates of strong civility can offer allows people to disagree, perhaps vehemently, but manages to provide a way of creating a world where people can live with differences and not give up their values and beliefs. This is the best way of making sure that differences in beliefs and values don’t lead to violence, anger, hatred, and demonization of others. Strong civility allows us to make decisions and live together with those differences still in place. We need to learn how to avoid the violence and chaos that erupt when we treat our differences the way we have been recently.
Any commitment to strong civility as a form of communication ethics rests on the assumption that communication is not a matter of transmitting information from one place to another. Instead, it is a constitutive process. The process of communication creates meaning by way of interactions and associations between people. In other words, meaning is an outcome of practices of relationality. This makes the kinds of relationships we have a central consideration for the meaning we make in the world. This commitment to strong civility also rests on the belief, first articulated by John Dewey, that democracy is a way of life and not just a system of government. By that, Dewey meant that how we form associations with strangers is a critical component of living in a democracy. We form these associations so we can make good decisions together. If we engage others with animosity and hatred, those associations are more likely to be characterized by violence than collaboration, cooperation, or coordination. If we engage others with strong civility, then we create associations capable of guiding effective deliberative processes.
The communication practices that strong civility recommends and prescribes are the necessary means for saving our democracy, pulling us back from the brink of civil war, and rebuilding an inclusive social fabric that will allow us to make good collective decisions and build durable and healthy relationships. Civility has that much promise as an ideal and a set of behaviors. It can transform encounters from angry and resentful to thoughtful and fruitful. It can be the method for generating peaceful and systemic change in our politics, and to repair and improve our relationships with friends, family, and strangers. It may not be the key to radical, revolutionary change. But it does contain within it the benefit of being an evidence-based, effective instrument. Strong civility is a strategic art, a way of getting things done when differences seem too great to overcome. Employ the principles and practices of strong civility and you’ll have better relationships with friends and foes and maybe even create the kinds of changes you hope to make in the world. Let the lodestar of strong civility orient your behaviors and you’ll be a more effective, impactful, and trusted communicator, able to form deep connections with anyone without sacrificing your own beliefs or values. You’ll also occupy a deeply ethical position in a democratic world where our associations with strangers can mean all the difference.
Strong civility is a new term, and on the surface, it may appear to contain a contradiction. You may hear people talk about civility as a kind of “soft skill,” the conversational lubricant necessary for making social interactions proceed smoothly. Think about Miss Manners, and the advice columns we see in our local newspapers that make recommendations for what present to buy for your sister’s wedding. These forms of advice allow us to avoid missteps and confusion. But civility can be so much more. First, let’s note that civility matters because relationships matter. This shouldn’t be a gendered statement or an endorsement of an easy, soft and simple insight, although sometimes it is construed in that way. It is also not a trivial statement that can be accomplished with easy recommendations from Miss Manners. Civility gives us options and habits that can reliably help us to form positive relationships with anyone. Those options and habits are increasingly important because we live in a world with ever-greater degrees of diversity. If we are asked to form relationships with people that don’t look like us, sound like us, dress like us, or eat the same foods that we eat, then we can rely on the practices of strong civility to show us the way. Second, we’re also social creatures. We live inside social networks, we rely on others for our well-being and support, we crave contact with friends (new and old), and sometimes we even experience the joy that can only come with the camaraderie of a team that accomplishes what one person can’t. Our social networks live and die through specific communication practices. Use the wrong kinds of communication and your whole network of friends and relationships can collapse. Use the right ones and it can thrive. In order to make it clear what the stakes are, we can make the following distinction between three different kinds of civility:
1. Weak civility – These are the habits or practices of politeness, used to make other people feel comfortable in social situations. We use weak civility when we try to ignore differences. The old adage not to talk about politics or religion at the dinner table is a form of weak civility. We shy away from difficult conversations so that we can keep the peace. Etiquette manuals are manifestations of weak civility. They prescribe behaviors that reflect traditions of how people maintain peace and order in their social lives, by respecting people and avoiding controversy. Yet the rules have a bias toward keeping the peace by avoiding politics, which doesn’t help us in the current moment.
2. Pseudo-civility –When we reject any talk that makes us uncomfortable as being impolite, we are practicing pseudo-civility. “How rude of you to talk about racism and mascots!” We appeal to politeness or civility to stop conversation, or silence legitimate and important disagreements. This use of civility is in bad faith and results in covering up tensions in ways that benefit some and harm others. It disengages from others and is ultimately disrespectful because of the ways in which important disagreements are left to linger in the background ignored. Being fake-nice often does more harm than good.
3. Strong civility – These are behaviors and communication practices that are used to respectfully engage others in ways that deepen connections. When we listen to understand, talk about important issues to learn more, acknowledge and affirm others’ beliefs and values, carefully and forthrightly share our own beliefs, and have productive and caring conversations about difficult topics, then we have engaged in strong civility. I’m endorsing strong civility because of the work it is able to do, the consequences of the behaviors that make it up, and the promise it holds during these dark times of polarization and conflict. Any endorsement of strong civility is an ethical stance given how effective it can be at minimizing the potential of violence and maximizing our ability to form constructive relationships.
The time is right for a renaissance in civility. We’ll leave it to the historians to decide whether our moment is unique because of unprecedented vitriol. Yet everywhere you turn you find people worrying about the future of U.S. politics, worrying that forms of harassment, personal attacks, and open expressions of disdain are omnipresent and toxic. Some will blame the Internet, and the social media systems that have risen in popularity with it, for our circumstances. Those critiques have merit. Comments sections seem to breed vicious attacks and trolling – if we can’t disagree about Star Wars without personal attacks, what chance do we stand with real disagreements? Facebook algorithms seem uniquely susceptible to manipulation by fake news and nasty memes, while the generalized use of attention-grabbing hyperbole in online media creates clicks that reward bad behavior with revenue. Our speech acts online actually become valuable resources for huge companies to gather and sell data. Many books have been written about how media systems are a leading cause of our loneliness, our sadness, and our anger and outrage. Many others have been written about how the Internet may be destroying democratic values. Despite these troubling, dystopian assessments of our moment, the ways to make conversation better lie within our grasp.
Once upon a time, in the early 1990s, the architects of the Internet were digital idealists and dreamers. They predicted a new dawn for democracy. That new dawn has not happened. Social media may have helped make the world crazier. But partisanship, conspiracy thinking, and the politics of resentment are as old as human beings. It’s true that the current design of the Internet makes it easier than ever to target, to harass, to confuse, and to lie. As we wait for systemic change, which may or may not arrive, only a renaissance in civility can stem these tides. If we are a democracy, that means we can change the rules (and certainly work needs to be done on that front). But it also means that the power of talk can redirect our current course. As we wait for new rules and policies that will help minimize the damage that social media is doing to all of us, we need the practices of strong civility to help counteract the vitriol and to help hold onto our democratic values.
A commitment to strong civility must be local, grassroots, and must start in one’s own networks. This means both face-to-face encounters and our social media interactions. By using habits like active listening, we can keep our conversations going, manage our disagreements, and learn to live well with differences. That is the urgent project of the moment, because of both the ways in which technologies have rapidly reshaped our day-to-day lives and the need for our commitment to democracy to be lived in our most immediate interactions. The sudden rise in social media has coincided with the hard-won rise in diverse populations gaining access to the public square. When the French author Alexis de Tocqueville surveyed American culture in the 1830s, he saw people meeting one another, making decisions together, carrying out projects together. This was the living practice of democracy. People formed “associations” with one another everywhere. But these associations were mostly between white Western European men. Now our associations are much more diverse, thanks to the hard work of countless women and people of color fighting for the right to participate in the practice of democracy. That diversity is both a source of strength and an easy target for the vitriol, hyperbole, and anxiety of our moment. There are just many more people for us to make our “associations” with than there were when Tocqueville wrote his masterpiece on democracy. So, we have more people to get along with and these communication systems that seem to lend themselves to the kinds of talk that destroy democratic values. This is our predicament. And that predicament calls us back to the basic forms of human communication that can build and sustain constructive relationships between strangers.
We’ve learned a lot about networks in recent years. We’ve learned about the importance of strong ties and weak ties, how companies like Google and Pixar create innovative teams of people with diverse skills, and about how our social networks can lead to confirmation bias and blind us to new evidence and ideas. All of those insights are wonderful and important. But what are the practices by which we can sustain our networks? Mediated or face-to-face? If we don’t answer that question, then all that we know about networks may not help us revive our dying democracy. That’s why we need a sustained consideration of civility now more than ever. People are problems-solvers, at least people that live democratic values are. This is what Tocqueville saw in his journey. The best way to solve problems is through discussion. If we are to solve our problems through discussion, we need to know how good communication (and argument) can manage disagreement and facilitate change. Or how bad communication can allow disagreement to devolve into violence and how it might stop change in its tracks. A commitment to civility teaches us that rightness and wrongness are less important than how we treat others. That’s because we are all fallible, and what’s right today may appear wrong tomorrow. Relationships are more likely to endure than opinions about rightness and wrongness. As soon as we recognize that, we can begin the journey of building our strong civility skills.
We can learn what to write on a Facebook post so that you might have a productive conversation with a long lost relative or friend. We can also learn what to say to your colleague who voted for someone you loathe or who constantly reminds you of where they keep their guns for the coming apocalypse. We can even learn what to tell your grandfather who is questioning the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine. Beyond that, we can learn how to engage in difficult political conversations about the most pressing issues we face: climate change, voting rights, racism, and economic inequality. And you can learn how to do that work regardless of the side of these issues that you currently find yourself on. We can also learn how to respond to someone that appears flooded with extreme emotions and rage, regardless of the source of the rage. We can learn how to build relationships with strangers and enter into meaningful conversations that you never would have predicted. These basic, foundational communication skills are what we all need right now to talk to anyone about anything. They’ll give us the confidence to navigate our lives strategically and effectively, without the fear and anxiety that seems ever-present.
This does not mean that everybody will get along and agree. A democracy needs people to have clashes of opinion and argument. It needs a civility which allows people to disagree. Strong civility, as the guardian of the process, is the goal, not consensus or a specific kind of agreement. I’m not trying to convince anyone to become a liberal or a progressive or a conservative. I want to create a world in which people can live with their differences and not give up their values and beliefs. A world where arguments do not have to produce one winner and one loser. Such a world would include less violence, anger and hatred for those with whom we disagree. I want to show how to reconstruct civil society around basic communication practices so that we have better relationships of all kinds. And how we can argue without the need to win at all costs. That process begins with listening.
Active listening is more than just a polite social habit; it’s a transformative communication practice. When we choose to listen deeply to someone else, we are choosing a way of responding that will improve mutual understanding. Too often we can be distracted, half-listening, or thinking intently on what we might say when it’s our turn to talk. We might assume that we’ve heard what someone else is saying and so our focus can meander elsewhere. These poor listening habits can make it harder to engage with, and understand, others. Active listening is a structured form of responding that heightens our attention to our conversation partner. The active listener takes care to attend fully to their partner’s statements, and, as a first step, repeats or mirrors the key elements of what’s been said. We don’t have to agree with our conversational partner, but we do have an obligation to rephrase what they’ve said so as to insure a shared understanding. The act of restating allows a speaker to find out whether the listener really understood what they had to say. If the listener did not, the speaker can explain some more. The active listener is not, however, just listening at the surface for the facts and reasons articulated by the speaker. The listener ought to interpret their conversational partner’s words in terms of feelings. Thus, instead of just repeating what happened, the active listener might add context by identifying the feelings that the speaker is displaying. Then the other partner can go beyond confirming that the listener understood what happened by indicating that the listener also understood the partner’s psychological response to it. Here’s an example: Let’s say you have a stubborn teenager at home that doesn’t like doing chores and is frustrated by remote, on-line learning. The teenager declares that she will not be doing the dishes tonight and is tired of living in a “dictatorship where parents get to decide everything.” An active listener might say in response: You clearly don’t want to do the dishes tonight and you think this house is run like a dictatorship. Sounds like you are very frustrated and angry right now about the chores and how decisions are made here. Here the active listener has mirrored the teenager and added emotional context to check if they have understood.
Mirroring is one of the initial and most basic forms of active listening. To restate, summarize, and reflect another person’s position is to engage in active listening. We can develop our commitment to active listening further though. As the previous example shows, we can engage in emotional labeling by putting feelings into words. To help begin with this task you can use soft and tentative openers. For example, you might say: “I’m sensing that you might be feeling worried (anxious, nervous, etc.).” A speaker might not be fully aware of the emotional content of what they are saying, and so emotional labeling shows that you are listening for that emotional content as well. We can also ask probing questions. These are questions designed to draw someone deeper and to explore more substantive and complex details, information, or concerns. For example, we might ask hypothetical questions: “What do you think might happen if you did X?” We could also validate a speaker by responding in an authentically interested way. You’re trying to acknowledge the other person’s thoughts, feelings, or experiences and empathically confirm the importance of a speaker’s attempt to communicate those thoughts, feelings, or experiences. You might say: “I really appreciate your willingness to talk about this sensitive and difficult issue.” We might also allow for comfortable silences that slow conversations down. Too often, especially in intense or heated moments of communication, we rush to say all that we wish to say. But an active listener is able to pause, handle silence well, and give their conversational partner time to think about what it is they are saying or what they want to say. Silence can also be very helpful in diffusing intense conversations that could potentially become overheated. Active listeners also use “I” statements and focus on the content of what a speaker says and not the character of the speaker. An “I-message” let’s your conversational partner know how you feel and why and prevents the conversation from veering toward the “criticism-contempt-defensiveness” communicative cycle. In addition, you should avoid why questions (which tend to make people defensive), advising (offering your recommendations about what ought to happen), patronizing (looking down on a speaker), preaching (constantly using the word “should” to tell your conversational partner how they ought to act), and interrupting (this shows disinterest in another person’s views).
Active listening has several major benefits. First, it forces people to listen attentively to others. Second, it avoids misunderstandings, as people have to confirm that they do really understand what the other person has said. Third, it tends to open people up, to get them to say more, and it leads to further disclosure. When people are in conflict, they often contradict each other, denying the opponent’s description of a situation. This tends to make people defensive, and they will either lash out or withdraw and say nothing more. However, if they feel that their opponent is genuinely attuned to their concerns and wants to listen, they are likely to explain in detail what they feel and why. If both parties to a conflict do this, the chances of being able to develop a solution to their mutual problem become much greater. Fourth, active listening shows great respect to the speaker. It demonstrates an authentic interest in understanding your conversational partner’s point of view, which greatly facilitates the development of a trusting relationship. Fifth, active listening allows us to spot flaws in a speaker’s reasoning, it makes it easier for either conversational partner to consider alternatives to one’s own narcissistic views, and it allows us to identify points of agreement within a conflict. All of these are ways of gaining a more substantive understanding of another person. In any case, active listening is a conscious skill that requires considerable practice to master. We can simply use a speaker’s words, along with silence, concentration, patience, attentiveness, and some brief questions or restatements in order to draw someone closer.
This leads us to the principles of strong civility. The first principle is that we need to try to connect with people before we try to convince them or persuade them of our position. When we have worked to bond with people, finding commonalities and connections with them, we can have (some) trust. And when there is trust, it’s easier to disagree, to try on new and uncomfortable positions, to consider arguments and evidence we normally reject. In the end we still may reject them. But in the process change is possible. What creates a brick wall? Too often we think that if we just marshal the right arguments or bombard people with enough facts that they will bend to our will. These are called “push tactics” of persuasion; they almost never work, since no one likes to be bullied or manipulated, and they leave people feeling defensive and less willing to engage you. Instead, we ought to give up our desire to start by proving we’re right and replace it with attempts to form authentic connections. We can only be successful at persuasion if we have a durable bond with someone else.
The second principle is to treat other people as multi-dimensional and complex, and to acknowledge that people can and do change. Our habits of reducing people to a specific belief or two, as if knowing someone was a Republican or Democrat, watches Fox News or listens to NPR, likes Taylor Swift or Toby Keith told you everything you needed to know. One-dimensional stereotypes prevent us from forming strong bonds with others; once you start thinking in terms of good guys and bad guys, there isn’t going to be room for real engagement. All of us hold a wide variety of opinions, beliefs, values and philosophies, some of which may be contradictory. That’s OK, and actually maybe an advantage. Once we start seeing the complexity of people, we can better treat them with civility.
The third principle is to lean into hard conversations and practice self-discipline in these conversations, especially when we are uncomfortable. This skill is critical to strong civility because we need to recognize that we’re not just being nice. These hard conversations are where respect is earned, where we come to really understand others, and where people can feel their dignity is affirmed. To have such conversations, we need to keep our own emotions in check. Once we’ve got the principles down, we can have civil conversations. And this is the gateway to a communication ethics that can save our democracy.
- Robert Danisch is Professor and Chair, Department of Communication Arts, at the University of Waterloo.