“The only way out of the labyrinth of suffering is to forgive.”
—John Green

I have trepidations about taking on this topic but even more about letting it go, so I’m diving in.

Does civility in human dialogue and interaction matter? If it does matter, what causes it to disintegrate? How might it be elevated?

In this essay I’m focused not on policy but rather the tenor of the dialogue surrounding it.

* * *

On Thursday, March 11, 2021, President Biden signed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill from the Oval Office.

Days earlier on the Senate floor, US Senator Angus King had voted for the bill.

Earlier in the debate, however, the senator had voted against an amendment to attach a minimum-wage bill to the overall relief package. Shortly thereafter, Senator King (a highly respected friend of mine) explained his decision on Instagram:

I along with 7 other members of the Democratic caucus voted no, which disappointed and angered many. I am for the minimum wage increase part of the bill but was worried that the elimination of the tipped wage credit would actually hurt the very people we were trying to help. For a full explanation of how I made this tough decision, go to King.senate.gov. I’m hopeful we can get this done the next time around.

Here are some of the responses that appeared on the senator’s social media site following his decision:

“You don’t care about anyone but yourself.”
“You f-ing suck.”
“You are out of touch.”
“F U dude”
“You are an embarrassment—resign.”
“Burn in hell, you heathen.”

* * *

I’m not going to judge these comments but rather look at my own past. I’ve used some of those words before and even directed them at others. When and why did I use this language, and how did it go for me when I took that path? I mean, really, at the core of my being, how did it go?

I spoke that way to another when . . .

I felt cornered or scared.
I felt extreme anger or frustration.
I felt disrespected and consistently unheard.
Something someone else did (or didn’t do) set me off.
I got overrun by my ego.
My basic fight-or-flight (or freeze) response took over.

How did it go?
I don’t remember it ever changing anything for the better.
I don’t remember ever feeling proud of my actions in hindsight.
No further listening or progress was typically possible, as trust had been destroyed.

* * *

There are root causes of hostile and demeaning dialogue. To create a change in our social discourse, we must work at that ground level. The seeds of incivility live in the trenches of not feeling trusted, respected, included, valued, safe, and heard.

The first rule of change creation is that it starts with me. It’s an inside job. I must become something different.

For example, although Senator King himself is a poised and highly respectful statesman, the totality of the political dialogue in Washington manifests as hostile and demeaning toward those with differing views. If anger seems more prevalent at our nation’s capital these days, capitol leadership should reexamine what they are collectively modeling. Tone is heavily influenced by those at the top, and I have seen this in my own work as a CEO.

Early in my career I used the power of my voice and title to influence outcomes. In hindsight, my ideas weren’t always winning on their merits but rather on their booming tone from the pulpit I occupied. The result was that people eventually went quiet, or they escalated their own verbiage in response. Either way, the outcome was poor decision-making, a lack of deep trust, and no authentic buy-in. My loud voice didn’t take me very far.

But then in 2010, prophetically, I acquired a rare neurological voice disorder and my speaking was frequently reduced to a whisper. This was actually a gift in disguise.

I’ve since gotten a good piece of my voice back, but I’ve made a personal commitment not to use it the way I once did. Instead, I have made it a priority to take incivility out of our company by going after the root causes, of which I was one. It is through this decade-long effort that I know with certainty that collaborative and candid idea sharing can carry the day, and win in ways that aggression can’t.

I have not raised my voice at work in many, many years. Nor have I seen anyone else do so. I’m not saying it never happens, but it’s exceptionally rare. What has allowed this culture of calm voices to blossom within our company?

It was simple. First, we prioritized the creation of safe forums for everyone to be regularly heard. In the process we changed the purpose of listening. Listening was to be for understanding, not judgment. We let go of the idea that a thought authentically shared by another needs to be labeled as right or wrong. We stopped making assumptions about the motives of others. We started seeking and applauding diversity of view points.

“Thank you for sharing” has become a common response.

When you stop trying to get everyone to agree, think alike, or convert to a “company line,” dialogue becomes stress-free. Every perspective can be honored without diminishing your own. Every human voice is unique by design. Not everyone sees what you see—and that’s a blessing, not a curse.

Civility, like many other aspects of life, is ultimately a product of the old adage, If it is to be, it starts with me.

* * *

Thank you for considering my thoughts. In return I honor yours. Every voice matters. Nestled between our differences lies our future.

“Transcending the urge to judge, fix, solve, or transform others is what actually creates the conditions for communities or companies to progress. When people feel heard, not judged, they relax. When people relax, they think. When people think, they grow.”
—Kevin Hancock,
One CEO’s Journey into the Business of Shared Leadership

This is the twenty-third in a series of short essays to be posted by Kevin Hancock to www.thebusinessofsharedleadership.com in 2021, in honor of Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux holy man who was escorted as a child on a sacred vision quest by the 48 horses of the four directions to visit the six Grandfathers. My horses, prancing they are coming. They will dance; may you behold them. On that journey Black Elk understood the sacred power that dwelled within him and lives within us all. He also recognized that this power could be used for good or bad. Intentional we must be about the path we walk.