Practice (and Preach) Civility in Public and Private Discourse

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

Original: September, 2017

Updated November, 2019

What does "civility" mean?  It certainly means avoiding the use of swear words and other inflammatory language.  It means treating opponents--even those you staunchly disagree with -- with respect.

It means listening to them, and seriously thinking about what they have to say before one either rejects it or accepts it. It means treating people the way you want to be treated--even IF they don't treat you that way in return.  To us, it means "constructive confrontation." 

Other things you can do to help.

In 1997, Guy and I wrote a well-received essay on civility which started "the increasingly vocal campaign for for civility in public discourse reflects an understandable and widespread frustration with the current tenor of political debate." Wow!  Little did we know how much worse it could get! 

But it certainly has. A distressing proportion of political talk in 2017 includes name-calling, hateful rhetoric, and a complete refusal to listen to or think about the interests, needs, or beliefs of "the other side."  As our partisan divide grows ever-deeper, advocates on both sides are simultaneously pleading for civility and going for the kill. I laughed, and moaned, at a recent Facebook post made by a friend of mine, calling for "civility" in our discourse--insisting that people should "Just shut the f*** up."  Really?  I didn't ask him what he thought "civility" meant--but I should have.

So what DOES "civility" mean?  Well, it certainly means avoiding the use of swear words and other inflammatory language.  It means treating opponents--even those you staunchly disagree with -- with respect.  It means listening to them, and seriously thinking about what they have to say before one either rejects it or accepts it. It means treating people the way you want to be treated--even IF they don't treat you that way in return. 

Things You Can Do To Help
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This post is also part of the
Constructive Conflict
MOOS Seminar's

exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


Why do this?  What is the alternative?  We can call people names, we can refuse to listen to their arguments. We can dig in our heals and refuse to listen or compromise, insisting we are right, and it is "our way or the highway."  What will that get us?  It only digs our divide deeper and it makes it all the less likely we will prevail. People don't listen to those who call them names.  They certainly don't change their beliefs or their behavior.  Do you think someone is "deplorable" or "hateful?"  Want them to stay that way--or get even worse?  Call them "deplorable" or "hateful!" --It will certainly reinforce those behaviors!

On the other hand, engaging in disarming behaviors:

  • where you are" nicer" than the other side expects you to be,
  • where you listen when others haven't,
  • when you exhibit a willingness to work with the other side to try to meet their legitimate needs (though not their illegitimate demands)

creates what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance."  The other side has stereotyped you and "your type" as stupid and evil and wrong and nasty--but here you are seeming really reasonable, and intelligent, and friendly.  So what do they do?  Well sometimes, they'll still ignore you or dismiss you, believing your behavior to be "a trick," but sometimes you break through and cause a re-examination of their negative stereotypes. When that happens, your conflict with them can begin to de-escalate. 

We do not want to imply that "being nice" is all that is needed to get "the other side" to agree with you or to reach win-win agreements.  Many of our deep differences are based on fundamental moral differences and identity issues that people do not compromise about  So conflict is still inevitable.  But it doesn't have to be destructive.

In our earlier essay on civility, we suggested people follow five rules for what we call "constructive confrontation."  These include:

  1. Separating the people from the problem - reframing the relationship so you are working with the other side to solve a common problem, rather than framing the problem as being the stupid or evil person on the other side (for the same reasons as listed above).
  2. Obtaining and using reliable facts.  This is a very hot issue in 2017, of course, when all sides are throwing around accusations of "fake facts!" and both sides, in different circumstances, refuse to believe science when it asserts "facts."  Scientists need to make an extra effort to explain their processes and findings in language lay-people can understand, and work to rebuild trust.  People on all sides of political controversies, meanwhile, need to honestly examine where they are getting their "facts" from.  It may feel more comfortable denying that climate change is happening, but "science" and "facts" are going to rear their ugly heads anyway--as we are finding out currently with a string of Category 5 hurricanes and almost unprecedented fires (and resulting air pollution) across the Western United States.  
  3. Avoid the use of--and be alert to--the use of propaganda and other deliberate distortions of information.  The real truth is difficult enough.  If we make things seem even worse than they are--to try to make a point--we just lose credibility and make problem solving increasingly difficult.
  4. Use fair processes.  Civility requires that public issues be addressed in ways that are fair both in appearance and fact.  Public input needs to be honestly solicited and considered.  Adequate time should be taken to allow both decision makers and the public to actually read bills that are being voted on, and provisions of these bills need to be examined to determine social, economic, and environmental impacts.  The procedures being used by the Republicans in the Senate, introducing one "health care bill" after another in an attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (e.g., Obamacare) without allowing anyone to see the bill, without open debate, without waiting for a Congressional Budget Office examination of the impacts of each bill--is not civil behavior.  It is quite the opposite.
  5. Limit escalation.  Both escalation-avoidance and de-escalation strategies are necessary when in protracted, difficult conflicts to avoid making them even more protracted and difficult.  "Going in for the kill" seldom works--it usually just increases the resistance of the other side.  We have an entire essay on this topic, so I won't repeat that content here.  
  6. Limit the "backlash effect." People hate being forced to do things against their will.  So try to get people to act differently by using persuasion, based on broadly acceptable principles of fairness and widely-shared values.  This is often just as successful as force--yet it doesn't generate backlash.  Trading (hence negotiation) also works to get things you need without backlash--when you have someone on the other side who is willing to compromise. Force should be reserved for cases when it is absolutely necessary (meaning the other two power strategies have failed) --and then it should be legitimate uses of force--hence using accepted power strategies, not ones widely seen as excessive or illegitimate.
  7. Be Willing to Be Persuaded. Lastly, if we want people to listen to us when we try to explain to them why they should behave differently, we need to be willing to listen to them.  Put another way, no matter how sure we are that we are right, we need to be willing to seriously consider the possibility that we might be wrong.  We need to listen to and seriously think about the arguments that are being made against us, and consider why these arguments are being made.  Almost always there is some truth in what "the other side" says or feels--that's what makes it seem so dangerous to consider.  But if we do, we might be able to find a way out of our deeply divided society and into something that is more beneficial for everyone.

For more information on civility, see,

Question for You:

Have you ever been faced with an uncivil opponent who tempted you to respond in an uncivil way--but you didn't?  What did you do? How did it work out?  And how can we encourage civility in this era of severe incivility?  Answer in an email, and we'll post your answer here!