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Training tools you can use to achieve civility

The concept sounds easy, but exactly what does it mean to be civil? Here are specific tips you can deploy in tense moments.

For all the lawyer jokes out there, and despite there obviously being some particularly rude law students, legal educators, and practicing attorneys, many more regularly practice politeness, especially in their professional roles.

Think, for example, of courtesies extended in courts, where attorneys must address judges by formal titles and where they may not speak or approach the bench without permission to do so.

Civility extends far beyond those formalities lawyers already observe, but how can you ensure you’re leading with civility? Here are ways you can do that in your speaking and writing; in a bar exam setting; and in your work with colleagues, clients, support staff, consultants, and even adversaries.

Courtesies you can implement

I’d like to start with two threshold points. One, when we disagree profoundly with others, especially about deeply controversial or personal issues, it can be hard—really hard—to maintain even minimal amounts of courtesy. This is especially true because certain cultural norms that once subdued gratuitous attacks have eroded, and it may feel like an uphill battle to disagree politely and respectfully, particularly when you’re not treated that way in return.

And, two, nowhere am I suggesting that civil disagreement is required in all instances, such as when you’re the subject of a physical attack, threat, or harassment.

However, there are daily courtesies you can implement, even where you disagree with others, that will likely yield immediate work benefits. Key among those are these points:

  • Employers and prospective employers expect to be treated respectfully, so exercising formal courtesies can help you get jobs and keep them.
  • The world is small; good references help tremendously, and bad ones hurt.

When you’re polite to people, they remember that. And, above all, they remember when you’re not.

I know of a judge advising a group of graduating law students who suggested the students keep lists throughout their working career of attorneys they’d like to work with again and those whom they don’t trust, respect, or ever want to deal with in the future.

The judge then assured these budding lawyers that everyone in the legal community would be making similar lists about them. His advice: “Make sure you stay on the good lists.”

The benefits last

In addition to immediate benefits, there are also long-term benefits to infusing civility and respectful disagreement in our work environments. Among them:

  • More robust conversations ensue when they include insights from different perspectives, and work environments suffer where differing points of view are stifled.
  • Compromise, consensus, and understanding typically emerge more frequently from civil disagreement than from verbal attacks.
  • People experience an increased sense of belonging, even in difficult conversations, where everyone’s voice is politely heard.
  • Empathy, which in turn enhances engagement and productivity, can be cultivated by listening to the viewpoints of others and stepping into their shoes.

Remember, as a law student, you’re being trained to become an adversary. Your mind was or is being shaped during 1L reading as you analyzed majority and dissenting opinions.

Why do we publish both? Why does our system institutionalize respectful disagreement? What did you learn by seeing the same situation from opposing sides, and how can you take that into your day-to-day work?

And, in many law school classes, professors call on those who’ve made a point to argue the other side. I know that as a law professor, I frequently require students to take opposing positions.

In addition to this being an important way to train your analytical and advocacy skills, it’s also helpful preparation for the bar exam, where a useful technique to issue spot effectively is to read an essay question fact pattern once as if you were counsel for one party and a second time from the perspective of the opposing counsel. The areas that are gray, that can be argued both ways, tend to be discussable issues—places where you often should spend the most time on your analysis. This strategy is also invaluable to writing a passing performance test answer in a respectful tone that’s appropriate to the audience.

Civility, especially in a society that’s as divided as ours currently is, can become nuanced and complex. But sometimes you can approach difficult areas with simple steps; while these don’t purport to or attempt to resolve issues entirely, they can help.

As an analogy, consider the person who wants to become more fit and who could undertake a massive study of the latest fitness research, take batteries of tests, begin time-consuming and costly exercise regimes, and attempt to follow complex dietary rules. All that may be well and good, but starting by taking the stairs instead of the elevator, drinking more water, and eating slowly would all help, too.

Train yourself on civility

Similarly, there are a few helpful starting places, simple steps if you will, to train civility. One is the rephrasing technique. This involves articulating what you want to say to someone, then thinking of a more polite way to phrase your communication before you speak or write it to its intended audience.

Imagine you get an aggressive and offensive letter from opposing counsel or a condescending text from your boss.

Write perhaps in the notes section of your personal phone (don’t do this with a work phone) or say aloud to yourself your initial reaction. Then write out your talking points or your written response in a more tempered fashion. For emails or texts, let your first drafts sit overnight, if possible, then read with fresh eyes and edit before sending.

Another technique is to preface our responses with a key word or phrase that reminds us of our commitment to civility.

Note that how to actually feel respect for others may take deeper work. But, in terms of respectful discourse, sometimes having a stock phrase in our heads that we can call up in tense situations helps us to pause, take a breather from the temptation to react rashly and maybe too harshly, and instead to choose a thoughtful reaction.

In some instances, the wisest course may ultimately be to remain silent.

What do I mean by stock phrases? Here are examples. You can say them or keep them in your head as mental tools to remind yourself to pause and think before reacting.

“You engage, you enrage.” This is the advice a judge friend shares regularly with family court litigants and people involved in contested divorces and child custody disputes. She’d suggest they keep this phrase in their back pocket to attempt to defuse tense situations.

When she practiced, before being appointed to the bench, she urged her clients to simply say this to themselves, under their breath, to help them hold their tongue when they were tempted to speak directly with their spouse. Translation: “Don’t add fuel to the fire.” She explained that many litigants can still sit together and work out settlements, even in tense litigation. But occasionally, things have just gone too far, and parties must let all the “oxygen” out of the situation for the fire to have a chance at subsiding.

“I respectfully disagree.” Using this as a preface, especially if you follow it with a deliberate pause, can disarm the person you are disagreeing with and buy you time to reflect and choose your words more carefully than had you simply blurted back a retort. You must actually disagree with the content of the comment, not the person making it.

For example, saying, “I respectfully disagree, you moron” won’t work. But it might work to say, “I respectfully disagree with the new policy because I don’t believe it advances the goals it was designed to achieve. Could we sit down and have a discussion so that I can hear your thoughts, share my own, and work out a compromise?”

“That’s a very interesting point.” Of course, these words can be used to mean, “That’s just plain stupid.” But it doesn’t have to be dismissive or rude. And remember, you can use a stock phrase by keeping it in your own head. If you do say it aloud, mean it—genuinely.

Even blatantly offensive comments can be interesting and make you wonder why the person said the remark and what’s behind it. Understanding someone else may lead you to constructive conversation.

And think about how this stock phrase can defuse a situation. You can shorten it to simply nodding to acknowledge you’ve heard the other, saying nothing but and murmuring to yourself, in your own head, “Interesting, interesting.” Again, this buys you time while you decide what, if anything, to say in response.

“I need to think about that for a bit.” Keep this stock phrase in your back pocket in case you need additional time. You can’t possibly imagine how useful it is.

The bottom line is that respectful discourse isn’t intuitive; in some circles, it has ceased to be the norm altogether.

But it’s still what’s expected and what will typically serve you best as a beginning lawyer. And in my opinion, it’s still also the right thing to do. Thus, there are numerous important reasons and benefits of training yourself to engage in thoughtful, civil dialogue and to disagree with people without attacking them personally.