Civility and Interpersonal Competence

Natalie Costanze-Chavez writes a column called Grace Notes.  Last Sunday, she wrote about how one of her columns prompted quite a bit of what can only be called hate mail.  Natalie stood by her words, but was upset that so many people attacked not her ideas, but her personally.  She made a great point that goes to the heart of interpersonal competence…

“We have to find a way to talk to each other without being so afraid of difference that we turn rude and hostile – especially at this point in our history…Luckily there are a lot of you out there who are OK with disagreement.  The willingness to respectfully disagree is what will save us – in the short run and the long run.”

Interpersonal competence is one of the keys to success that I discuss in Straight Talk for Success.  If you want to become interpersonally competent, you need to do three things: 1) develop a deep understanding of yourself, use this self awareness to better understand others; 2) build strong, lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with the people in your life; and 3) resolve conflict in a constructive manner.

Natalie’s message goes to the third point.  Sure, we can disagree with one another, but we should always try to resolve our differences positively.  There is no need to demean other people for their ideas.

Interpersonally competent people use conflict as an opportunity to explore new and different ways of solving problems.  Digging in your heels and arguing your point even louder is not the way to resolve conflict.  Listening to the other person, exploring your differences, and looking for places in which you agree is the way to build a constructive solution to a seemingly insolvable problem.

Getting to Yes is one of my favorite books.  I have given away over 25 copies to friends and coaching clients over the years.  Roger Fisher and William Ury make a great point in this book – when you are in a conflict situation, focus on where you agree and build a mutually satisfying solution.
Mssrs. Fisher and Ury point out the folly of positional bargaining – quid pro quo.  Typically, this type of thinking leads to a negotiated solution in which both parties are unhappy, as they both have had to give up part of their positions. 

It would be kind of like saying, “OK, I’ll vote for John McCain, but only if he picks Joe Biden as his VP,” or, “I’ll vote for Bbarack Obama, but only if he picks Sarah Palin as his VP.”  I’m sure you can see the absurdity here.

On the other hand, beginning from a place where you both agree – however small, allows you to shed the shackles of your position, look at the conflict from a new perspective and build a solution that is superior to either beginning position.

However, to do so, you have to be civil.  Deosaran Bisnath makes some great points about civility.  He is writing to citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, but his message is one that we should all read and take to heart.

“Civility refers to respect, manners, and common courtesy. The loss of civility in our nation arises because children – and adults – are not taught these basic social skills…We cannot, and should not accept this…Where do we start? With each of us – in our behavior, speech, lifestyle, and comportment, we must practice and demonstrate civility. Of course, we can’t legislate civility; nor can we institute civility by decree.  No, we do not wish for the social engineering of civility.  However, it is imperative that we demand acceptable levels of civility from our families, relatives, friends, associates, colleagues, and ourselves – Mahatma Gandhi exhorts us to be the change you wish to see in the world…We must encourage and foster an environment of decency and civility in our homes, work- and play places.  Instead of aggression and hostility, we must conduct civil debates and discussions.”

The common sense point here is clear.  Civility – especially in the face of disagreement is the basis of interpersonal competence.  As the saying goes, “conflict is inevitable, violence is not.”  I’m writing here not about physical violence, but the emotional violence that we so often inflict on others with whom we do not agree.  Interpersonal competence is a key to success, just as civil discourse is a key to interpersonal competence.    The next time you find yourself in disagreement with someone, take the time to understand his or her point of view, and then respond civilly.

That’s my take on civil conversation and interpersonal competence.  What’s yours?  Please leave a comment telling us about times when you’ve seen civility triumph over anger.  I appreciate and value all of your comments.  As always, thanks for reading.


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