It is difficult to handle controversy and perhaps harder still to do so with true civility. From the time children begin to understand their relationship to others - as siblings, as kids on a school playground – they are socialized to avoid conflict. For some, “No fighting” and “Be nice” are messages that shaped our behaviors. For others, getting what they want by fighting reinforces the use of power and the disregard of others. How many individuals interpret and approach conflict may be traced back to these early messages. People may have learned that they can either be strictly right or wrong; that one person’s point of view is more valid than another’s; and perhaps that disagreement is synonymous with fighting. It is no surprise, then, that many would want to avoid speaking up when they disagree. This is the message that has been learned and one that has consistently been reinforced through many life experiences.
Civility however, is more complex than just “not fighting” and “being nice.” Civility certainly does not require that a person stay quiet when he or she disagrees, pretending that all is well when it is not. Instead, it means learning how both to voice disagreement and to respond to disagreement from others in a way that respects other points of view. In “The Virtues of Leadership,” Thomas J. Sergiovanni (2005) describes civily as a virtue “that embraces diversity, encourages tolerance, and legitimizes controversy. Civility builds frameworks within which people can cooperate despite their divergent views and interests.”
As much as civility may be thought of as a great character trait, it is also an attitude, a behavior, and , in the Social Change Model1, it is a value. It requires the belief that there is not just one “right” point of view, but that everyone will see an issue slightly differently, depending on his or her background and previous experiences. Civility does not require the group to agree with every opinion that is raised, but each opinion should be listened to with respect and taken under consideration while considering the issue or making the decision…
In effect, Controversy with Civility challenges group participants to discuss diverse opionions and perspectives, while maintaining respect for those sharing other views. Without regard for respect or consideration of other’s ideas, group members can quickly lose themselves in the “heat” of an argument, preferring to “win” or give up and “lose” rather than truly understand the issue and solve the problem. By creating an environment in which various opinions are valued, a group can promote constructive discourse in order to negotiate a favorable outcome.
---abstract from Susan R. Komives, Wendy Wagner, and Associates (2009) Leadership for a better world: understanding the social change model of leadership development.