Thursday, July 21, 2011

The secret to deeper relationships: Civility


When was the last time you did any of the following?

1. Listened or talked with someone you’ve always found uninteresting

2. Summarized the contents of your on-going conversation to someone who has just joined you

3. Made a new neighbor feel welcome by acknowledging them and saying, “welcome.”

4. Admitted that you might be wrong

5. When someone is speaking ill of another person, you offered something positive about the absent person

6. Conveyed respect for somebody sharing a different opinion than yours

7. Said the words, “please” or “thank you.”

8. Disposed of a piece of litter left behind by a stranger

9. Showed kindness to an animal

10. Made a new pot of coffee at the office after you drank the last cup

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Tell the truth. How many times did you answer “yes?”

Because these ten questions illustrate what Civility looks like in real life. Wait, before you tune out and discard ‘civility’ into that out-dated, irrelevant category in your head, think again.  According to P.M. Forni, the Cofounder of the John Hopkins Civility Project, and the Author of Choosing Civility, civility is the secret key to making us happier.

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That’s right. The author presents research to support that Civility--defined loosely as considerate and kind behavior--is a way of living that deepens our relationships. And he shares research that offers support for the link between our relationships and our physical and emotional health.

For instance, did you know?

  • That in 1979, after several years of observing thousands of men and women, mind-body researcher Lisa Berkman found that people living in isolation were dying at a rate of 1.9 to 3.1 times higher, than people who were connected in their community and had caring relationships.
  • In the 1990s researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that subjects who were part of diverse social networks were more effective in fighting off the basic cold.
  • People who have more friends have lower stress levels and longer lives (The Social Animal, David Brooks, 2011)

With this in mind, the author lists 25 essential behaviors that are relevant today. And his message? Civility is about Action.

         What do your Actions say about you?

 Yes, it’s about thinking the best of others, but then it’s putting this thought into action. Yes, it’s about feeling empathy toward others, but it’s also behaving with sensitivity when you’re with others. And Mr. Forni gets specific for the reader. While some of these 25 behaviors seem like no-brainers, these types of considerate and thoughtful actions require real effort in our world today.

Here’s one simple example. Forni says, “Let’s never forget that the quality of our listening is as good a measure of our humanity as any.”

Heady stuff. Lovely words, but he goes on to break it down. And he asks:

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Are you really a good listener when you’re face-to-face with another?

  • Do you listen with the conscious intent to hear what the other person is saying?
  • Do you keep eye contact during a conversation or do you find yourself “zoning out” during certain moments?
  • Do you convey a real interest in what someone is saying? Or, are you merely waiting for a chance to jump in to present your fascinating perspective.
  • Are your questions aimed at satisfying your need for gossipy details, or do you ask open-ended questions that can help the sharer gain more clarity about his own words, and ultimately, make better sense of his experience. It’s a different focus. One that prioritizes the other person.

           I worry about our kids

Is this how we listen to others? Think hard. Because I wonder if living in our frenetic paced, multi-tasking, techie world where we constantly scan twitter and Facebook, and seek the swiftest answer on our iPhones and computers, is hurting our face-to-face encounters. Demolishing our intimate people skills.


And as a Mom, I worry about our kids.  I wonder if living in a culture of instant text messaging, is creating panting Pavlovian creatures anxiously waiting for the next distraction; the latest flashing screen, and the most juicy and titillating headlines. And I wonder if the quiet, nuanced skills of civility aren’t being lost in this highly efficient tech culture that we live in.

Practicing civility is really a no-brainer. Acknowledge others. Speak kindly. Be inclusive. Convey respect for a different opinion. It’s a way of living that acknowledges the deeper Truth in life: that all our behaviors have consequences on one another, and when we respect and care about these consequences, we end up enriching our own lives.

Only these sorts of behaviors require that we pay attention; that we lift our eyes off our smart phones and become alert to the world. And that we be absolutely present in the moment. Because without attention, there is no meaningful interaction possible. It’s that simple.


So start today and lower your stress. Live longer. Be happier. Simply begin by paying attention and practicing a little civility, and be prepared for your relationships to transform.



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