Civility and frankness are not mutually exclusive

I find it interesting when I get push back as folks ask why should we be civil when the other side is not? Often I respond with the simple retort – civility and frankness are not mutually exclusive. One can push back without taking the other person’a head off.

I am reminded of the story of a black man who has been able to change the mindset of more than 200 KKK members. In so doing, he collects their robes. Now, the KKK is as extreme a white supremacist group as there is. How did he do it? He spoke civilly toward them asking a few questions. He listened to their answers. Then, he asked pertinent follow-up questions. Eventually, the KKK members saw the logic of his argument. He says people just want to be heard.

Diplomacy is an art. It is a way of understanding people, but being forthright with what you believe and want. In essence, it is precisely what this black man did in speaking with the KKK members. He did not shout. He did not tell them they were wrong or bad people. He started conversations and listened to them. Then, he asked questions in follow-up. He heard them which allowed them to hear him.

A few diplomatic phrases might be beneficial. You might ask, “Help me understand why you would say that?” Or, you could use a more unnerving statement like, “I understand your points, but I do not find them to be entirely true.” Or, you could say, “I have not heard that before; tell me where did you read that?” Or, you might say, “that used to be true, but is no longer.”

Tone matters. The more measured you are, the better chance your points will be heeded. If you raise your voice, expect it in return. Avoid the use of labels and name-calling. When I hear labels, it means the other person’s arguments are not as well-grounded. Labels are short cuts to convey a derogatory meaning to less informed people. As with shouting, name-calling begets name-calling.

In today’s America, we are less civil. The current President did not invent uncivil behavior nor did he invent stretching the truth. A way to convey a position without attacking one of his fans might be “I wish the President would not tweet as much as he is hurting his message.” Another is “I wish the President would not demean people when they are critical of his efforts.” I wish the President would reconsider the tariffs he placed on our allies.” Or, “I wish he would not stretch the truth like he does.”

I am far from perfect and my poor wife hears the more unvarnished version of what I type and say. But, I will leave with one final thought I have noted before. If you want your children to really hear you, whisper.

13 thoughts on “Civility and frankness are not mutually exclusive

    • Hugh, too true. I wrote this after someone who leads people made the comment to me. I was stunned. I wrote something similar to the above as my retort. Keith

  1. Great input here, Keith! There are many ways to express one and the same thing. As you said, it is not what you say but how you say it. I love that last sentence. So, so very true!!

    • Thanks Erika. I don’t know if you have these pseudo-new shows over there, but we have shows where people shout at each other and no one is listening. I don’t tend to watch those shows. I love PBS Newshour where they have people on who tend to know what they are talking about and they are required to have civil discourse or are not invited back.

      • Oh, well, when it is election time it can happen that the discussions turn out like that. They are not interested in listeining but only in convincing everyone and to make them and their programs looking good and the others bad.

      • Erika, too true. There are some who feel if they overwhelm the other, they win the argument and are obviously right. As we all know, the loudest, most overbearing person does not make them right. Keith

  2. Note to Readers: I was having this discussion with a cantankerous leader of a division of a major company I worked for. Cantankerous is not the word I chose, as his reputation was pervasive, but it is apt. He argued on just about every issue, but there were two points on which we came to agreement, one he had to be swayed. The one where we agreed is stock ownership by a broader grouping of employees is a good thing.

    The one where he had to be swayed required a lot of diplomatic pushback. This company and division had a way of saving money by extending the period of time between raises from one year to eighteen months and sometimes two years, a policy I think is horrible. He beat on me that we could give the same amount of increase after two years that we give at one year and they would be OK and the company would save money. After hearing him, I simply said “If they are still here.” This company had huge turnover in a couple of areas. If people feel unvalued and have choices, they will leave. That comment sank in and changed his mind in small part.

    In my old job, I have been in some interesting meetings with people whose ego exceeded the level of homework they did or depth of understanding (reminds me of certain President). Diplomatic pushback is essential. Another example is a of a closely held organization where one brother was CEO and the other was Chairman. Every meeting, and I mean every meeting, the two would argue over something. If I was presenting, they would seek to get me on their side. Talk about the need for diplomacy – to agree with one and not offend the other. So, I was constantly on my toes to make sure the other’s point was validated in some respect, when I agreed with the better argument.

  3. I had a professor in college, a very wise man named Bill Lee, who once told me that if I wanted to be heard, I must learn to speak in my softest voice. “Why?”, I asked. “Because, child, then the others have to stop their own shouting in order to hear you.” I have never forgotten his words that day, although I often forget, as we both know, to heed them! 🙄

    You are, as I’ve said before, my gold standard for being civil, even in the face of the vileness coming from all sides these days. I admire you, and I think of you as I’m writing, often taking out a phrase, a word, or at least toning down my angst. I will likely never be as cordial, as civil as you, but you’ve at least made me try.

    • Jill, many thanks. Your professor is a wise person. I got more push back on why be civil? His point is it does not address systemic issues like racism.

      I noted if we not civil, we will become like the talk shows where everyone shouts and no one is listening. I added the only way to solve systemic issues is through community coalitions where people can come together to plan, celebrate, fellowship, play and discuss. This is a key premise of David Brooks.

      He spoke of the President as the worst example. I agreed, but he wants a mudfight which he will win. He does not want fact-bases and Frank feedback. And, it has to be civilly delivered.

      We still are rolling a ball uphill. Keith

      • Some days I think discourse in this country already resembles an episode of Jerry Springer! And you are so right … we are pushing a ball uphill, and the ball keeps getting heavier. It’s sometimes difficult to stay focused and not jump into the mud with the rest, but we must, else we will be just as dirty as they.

  4. Dear Keith,

    What you are saying is so important. As a former professional sales person, I know that I would have lost a sale if I yelled at the client; called them names, etc. What Happens is that the other party shuts down where they don’t hear a word that’s being said.

    To persuade anyone, any good sales person will be first and foremost a good listener. This is a trait that President Trump doesn’t possess which is what makes him such a poor negotiator.

    So if the screaming party doesn’t want to persuade anyone, he/ she is on the right path.

    Hugs, Gronda

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