Henning showkeir

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We recently received an email from a dear friend and colleague with whom we are working closely to foster civil civic conversation in our community. It contained a comment she saw in a forum discussion on the website of The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD), a 1,400-member organization formed in 2002 that promotes learning and collaboration around innovative ways to bring people together for productive conversations around our communities’ most challenging problems. Here is the posting:

It seems to me there is need to begin de-emphasizing the word “civility” as we seek to engage the full political spectrum in conversation. Cognitively, the word “civility” has a defensive posture to it and can, therefore, not be “heard” (or is often heard with suspicion by many as meaning “be nice” — don’t be honest.)

A reframe to “civil conversation” (overused and thus meaningless), could be “authentic conversation”, “meaningful conversation”, “getting real”, “telling it like it is”….

The initial reaction to his post was defensive (even though I couldn’t help liking his reframe suggestion of “authentic conversations.”) Who could possibly advocate that we don’t need to establish “civility” in our society, when harmful effects due to the lack of civility are evident every day?

But on further reflection, we began to open up to the writer’s point. In fact, it was related to a blog we wrote last year.

The adjective “civil” has its roots in “citizen,” according to the dictionary. “Civilized” denotes courtesy and etiquette, with an underlying connotation that it is acceptable to withhold what we consider in the truth in the name of keeping the peace. “Civil often suggests little more than the avoidance of overt rudeness,” according to the synonym discussion below the dictionary definitions.

Surely solving our complex, tangled problems demands more of our conversations than avoiding contention or disagreement. Civility in its purest form is not only a perfect recipe for potential resentment; it destroys trust, is unproductive and is potentially dangerous to the common good.

Authentic conversations, as we define them, require telling the truth as we know it — always with goodwill — and the ability to sincerely argue another person’s viewpoint. When we get clear about our intention to be authentic, we come to the conversation with an open and curious attitude. Added to that is a sincere to desire to solve problems in a way that serves the best interests of the whole (community, enterprise, business) rather than satisfying the need to “get our way.”

Truly meaningful civic conversations are those where people choose to be authentically collaborate with each other in the interest of strengthening our communities. They require something far more robust than civility.

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