Guest Blog by Matt Lehrman, Managing Director of Social Prosperity Partners
Civility in local government is similar to the guardrails on a highway — providing structure by which municipal leaders and the public can navigate around each other. Securing the travel lanes provides mutual safety for people heading in all directions.
When civility breaks down, however, people and perspectives collide — resulting in misunderstandings and disagreements that can harm relationships and fracture a community’s sense of togetherness.
Guardrails can’t provide complete protection from conflicts, but they are the fundamental structures of cooperation and coexistence.
In the first half of this article, I’m going to make the strategic, and perhaps idealistic, case for celebrating disagreement. If you’ve already been on the receiving end of anger and vitriol, I’ll understand if you skip to the second half, which offers thoughts on how to stand strong against incivility.
Taking the lead
Every city official owns the responsibility for the infrastructure of civility in their municipality. Whatever your personal agenda or philosophy, you are — by nature of your position — undeniably responsible for ensuring access, information, and respect for all, including for those with whom you disagree.
Creating an environment that is open, fair, and considerate to everyone is crucial. This means basing your decisions on factual information, being transparent in your actions and decision-making processes, and being accountable for promoting a sense of pride and togetherness throughout your community.
By prioritizing civility, you set a positive example and build trust and confidence — not just in local government, but in your community’s essential quality of togetherness. A civil local government is not just nice to have but a must-have. It is the foundation upon which a healthy and functioning democracy is built.
Disagreement is not a sign of dysfunction, but rather a prerequisite for effective decision-making in a free society. The ideal of democracy is that it enables people with assorted knowledge, values, and lived experiences to come together to recognize and solve community problems. The civic leadership for which you’re responsible cannot be achieved without the presence of diverse and even passionate perspectives and viewpoints.
Disagreement also helps to expose underlying assumptions and biases. When individuals with different perspectives come together, they are often forced to articulate and defend their assumptions and values — a process that reveals hidden biases and assumptions. By engaging with dissenting viewpoints, municipal leaders can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the problem they are trying to solve. Diverse perspectives can help to identify issues that may have been overlooked or underappreciated. In this way, disagreement can be a catalyst for creativity and innovation.
When citizens are encouraged to express their views and engage in constructive dialogue, they are more likely to hold their leaders accountable for their decisions. Can you make yourself comfortable with feedback and criticism? By engaging with — rather than avoiding or repelling — diverse perspectives, even dissent, you have the potential to create a culture of accountability that ensures decision-making is truly transparent and responsive.
As a civic leader, when you say “community,” it’s especially important for people to remember that you are responsible to serve not a specific constituency but the entire population of your city. While it may be tempting to focus on the interests of your most vocal supporters or a community’s loudest voices, doing so can lead to short-term thinking and neglect of the long-term interests of the broader community.
Disagreement builds trust and strengthens relationships. When individuals feel that their opinions are valued and respected, they are more likely to be invested in that decision-making process. By creating forums for meaningful dialogue, municipal leaders demonstrate their commitment to the community and build relationships of trust and mutual respect. In this way, disagreement can be a powerful force for social cohesion and community building.
While disagreement can be challenging and uncomfortable, leaders must foster an environment that encourages open and honest communication. This may require the development of formal mechanisms for soliciting feedback and dissent, such as public forums or advisory committees. Leaders must also be prepared to model constructive dialogue and demonstrate a commitment to the values of transparency, accountability, and inclusivity.
Standing strong against incivility
The American ideal of government is rooted in the belief that reasonable people can work together to find solutions to shared problems. Compromise is not a weakness, and ample time and space exist to make community decisions. While not everyone will always agree on the final outcome, the process must be fair and thorough — ensuring that everyone feels heard. This is encapsulated in the American motto, e pluribus unum: “Out of many, one.”
Unfortunately, this ideal is being threatened by the prevalence of anger and outrage in American media, where clicks, shares, and time spent engaging translate into profit. This business model has created a market for incivility and negativity that pervades our society, leading to issues such as polarization and divisiveness. It’s a conundrum.
To counteract this, local governments must actively practice respectful communication and behavior that promotes collaboration, compromise, and constructive dialogue. Incivility, which demonstrates a lack of respect and consideration for others, creates a self-centered attitude that can leave others feeling hurt, disrespected, and excluded. It can extend beyond individual interactions to affect relationships, productivity, and broader societal issues community-wide. Therefore, it’s essential to strive for an environment that encourages civility and respectful engagement, helping to restore the American ideal of government.
If you want to stand against incivility, you need to recognize and call it out when you see it, in particular:
Obstinance — stubborn adherence to one’s own opinion despite reason or persuasion.
Demagoguery — emotional and prejudicial appeals to sway public opinion, rather than engaging in rational argument.
Dogmatism — the inflexible adherence to a particular set of principles, beliefs, or ideology, without considering alternative viewpoints or evidence.
Changing these behaviors is not something that can be achieved overnight. If you’re looking for a quick fix, I’m sorry to disappoint, but there is no magic phrase or verbal jiu-jitsu tactic that can instantly reverse an instance of incivility during a council meeting.
The following is the civility that all local leaders need to get good at:
Energize obstinance. Find shared goals and values that underlie the debate. By identifying common ground, you can frame the conversation in a way that encourages compromise and collaboration. Bring in outside experts, facilitators, or neutral third parties to provide fresh perspectives and objective feedback.
Counter demagoguery. Focus on presenting the facts and evidence that support the proposed course of action. By presenting data and statistics in a clear and compelling way, you can help to move the conversation away from emotional appeals and toward rational and fact-based decision-making. Engaging in active listening and making space for the consideration of alternative solutions is vital.
Overcome dogmatism. Frame the debate in terms of outcomes rather than ideology. By focusing on the practical implications of different policy choices, you shift the conversation away from entrenched beliefs and toward pragmatic solutions. Building alliances and coalitions across ideological lines can also be an effective way to seek out common ground and work together toward shared goals.
You have a crucial responsibility to govern your community in a fair, equitable, and just manner. This requires standing strong against incivility and disrespect, even when it’s being thrown at you. By modeling respectful behavior and promoting constructive dialogue, you set the standard for your community.
Connecting, respecting and listening
As a civic leader, you are the guardian of a thriving community, responsible for making decisions that impact the lives of your residents. Facing incivility and negativity during council meetings and community events can be disheartening, but giving up is not an option when it comes to civic leadership.
Remember that your mission is to create a positive and inclusive environment for all. By prioritizing respect and collaboration, you set an example for others to follow, creating a ripple effect that can spread throughout the community. Keep your focus on how people in your community deserve to feel about civic engagement — connected, respected, and heard — and find the motivation to push through challenging situations and work toward constructive solutions.
Local leaders hold the power to shape decisions that impact people’s daily lives. Making those decisions with integrity, fairness, and a commitment to the greater good is crucial. By bringing people together, bridging divides, and creating a better future for your community, you have a responsibility worth fighting for.
Stay strong, stay committed, and keep striving toward creating a more positive and inclusive community.