What 2016 Taught Me About Civility

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In 2016, the classic three forms of unconscious bias—racial, gender, and sexual orientation—were the most requested issues for Breaking Thru Barriers’ diversity & inclusion trainings. Clients wanted concrete skills and strategies to minimize the negative impact these biases have in the workplace. However, in the latter half of the year, clients began reporting incidents of staff members’ outright lack of civility toward one another—typically around political beliefs. They were desperate to learn how to move teams and staff toward better behavior and wanted different trainings. But if diversity and inclusion training wouldn’t help, what were they wanting to learn more about?

I gave it a name—unconscious opinion bias—and I saw clients’ heads nod in agreement. Such a bias occurs when you believe that your political or general opinion is the morally right one and the only perspective that is worthy. All other perspectives are in direct contrast to yours and are, therefore, morally wrong. It provides a unique framework and ideology to feel self-righteous in condemning all those who don’t agree with you.

Take an incident I encountered just after the recent U.S. political elections. As a facilitator of a meeting, I asked everyone to share one word that reflected their state of mind. While all shared words that echoed my own sentiments, such as “utter despair,” “total confusion,” and “loss of hope,” one white male loudly stated “jubilantly victorious!” I was enraged and confused, but pushed forward with the meeting, resentment building all the while. Two days after that, I was, ironically, in a board meeting with some of the same members and the “jubilant” individual sat next to me. What happened next was truly eye-opening.

As other members arrived, they solicited much laughter as they shared defaming jokes about President-elect Trump. My neighbor, however, didn’t laugh and hung his head low, shaking it slightly side to side. In that moment, I saw this person simply as a human being with different ideologies. My resentment melted away, and I said loudly: “Please stop making those negative comments about Trump. There are some around the table who think and feel differently.” The comments petered out and slowly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my colleague’s head lift. Rather than holding on to my resentment and joining in, I dug deep and leaned into civility.

We all have prejudices that we aren’t aware of. Most diversity trainings facilitate individuals’ movement toward unpacking their unconscious biases and aligning their attitudes with the right motivations. However, dealing with unconscious opinion bias is tricky and the right motivation is not always clear.

The right motivation, I am learning, is civility. Civility is speaking up for others even in the face of not agreeing with their perspectives, as I did with my Trump supporting colleague. It is being able to work in the cubicle next to someone whose beliefs are anathemas to the core of your being. It is ultimately recognizing that people are human beings underneath their opinions. When we can move beyond unconscious opinion bias, we allow others to have their own voice.

Here are 5 steps to being more civil in 2017

  1. Respond rather than react: See the person’s opinion as one aspect of what they feel and believe. They may say something racist, sexist, or homophobic, but that doesn’t mean the totality of who they are is that opinion.
  2. Be curious: Ask questions to learn more about what they think and feel. If they are unwilling to share and become argumentative, then that’s your clue to walk away. Otherwise, you might learn more about their opinions that run deeper than their surface antagonistic view.
  3. Stay informed: Read other sides of the issue and become more nuanced around “altfacts” so that you have a better-rounded understanding of topical issues.
  4. Build bridges: See ways, by being open and curious, to make connections among those with varying opinions rather than claiming they are wrong and you are right.
  5. Open up dialogue: Rather than stating your truths as the only way, remain interested in others’ opinions to open up a dialogue, rather than choosing “your way or the highway.”

Unconscious opinion bias can derail a sense of team building and a safe office environment if left unchecked. Facing it head-on helps others get along, and creates a more inclusive and tolerant office environment where everyone feels they have a voice and can be heard.