Tips for Promoting Civility in Public Meetings
What is Civility?
In the context of democratic debate, civility is about
how people treat each other. Civility involves the
display of respect for those who have positions with
which one disagrees.
Even though disagreement plays a necessary role in
governance and politics, the issue is how one expresses
that disagreement. The key is to focus on the strengths
and weakness of proposed solutions to community
problems—not to engage in personal attacks against
those who favor different solutions.
An even more
powerful leadership strategy is to listen for the
concerns and values that underlie people’s diverse
perspectives to try to identify points of agreement and
• Embrace Diverse Points of View. Local
officials are grappling with difficult policy
challenges. Bringing as many perspectives on what might be the best solution to a given
problem increases the likelihood that the solution will indeed be successful and enduring.
A goal is to create a culture of tolerance for differing points of view that credits everyone
with having the best interests of the community in mind.
• Everyone Gets a Chance to Share Their Views. Voltaire said "I may not agree with
what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it." Everyone’s right to
have their view heard is a central democratic value. Conversely, a strategy that relies on
drowning other perspectives out usually results in a turning up of the volume and
corresponding decreases in civility in discussions
• With Rights Come Responsibilities. For there to be time for everyone to weigh in on
an issue, there may need to be reasonable time limits on how long individuals speak. The
goal is to create a culture in which as many people as possible (including decisionmakers)
are respectful of other people’s time in attending and participating in the
• Avoid Debates and Interruptions. Interruptions should be discouraged so that
individuals have the opportunity to
complete their thoughts. A good practice
for everyone participating in the
conversation is to make a note of a question
or different point of view that occurs to you
when someone is speaking and then
address that issue when it is one’s turn to
speak. This is an especially important
approach for decision-makers to model.
• Reduce Uncertainty. Assuring people
they will be allowed to share their views
and how can reduce concerns that they will
not be allowed to be heard. Explaining the
process to be used to allow all views to be
heard at the outset of a meeting or
discussion item can reduce tension levels.
• The Importance of Listening. Listening
is an important sign of respect, as is giving
others the opportunity to listen. Decisionmakers’
active interest in what people are
saying is vital. Repeating back core points
that a speaker makes reassures the speaker
that their message has indeed been heard—
even if one does not necessarily agree with
it. The mood turns ugly if the public thinks
the matter has already been decided,
decision-makers don’t care about public
input, or decision-makers are being impolite or disrespectful of the public they serve.
Everyone attending a meeting should respect other attendees’ right to both listen and be
heard. One person should talk at a time, any private conversations should be taken
outside or deferred, and smart phones should be turned off (texting and emailing should
not occur during the meeting).
• Be Compassionate About the Fear Factor/ Heckling and Applause Not Allowed.
Polls suggest many people fear public speaking. This fear can come from concerns aboutbeing judged negatively or having ideas that people will ridicule or reject. Allowing
cheering and booing or other forms of heckling discourages people from sharing their
views (even silence or no applause can be perceived as rejection). It also runs the risk
that those that do speak will focus more on getting applause than moving the
conversation towards addressing difficult
issues. (Eye-rolling and grimacing can be
non-verbal forms of heckling and also have
no place in communities that value mutual
• Separate People from The Problem.
Personal attacks or questioning people’s
motives or character rarely moves the
conversation forward to a solution of a
problem. In the book about effective
negotiating called Getting to Yes, the
authors encourage negotiators to attack the
problem, not the people involved in the
problem. Anything that approaches name calling
should be off limits.
• Consider Using Titles. Referring to each
other by title and last name (Supervisor
Hassan, Council Member Lee, Board
Member Aviña) can serve as a way of
showing respect that an individual has been
elected and is participating in the
conversation in that capacity. Using
similar forms of respect for members of the
public (Mr., Ms, Sir, Madam) when
speaking can also reinforce the notion that
everyone is engaged in a special kind of
discussion. Community norms vary,
however, and in some communities this
may be perceived as an affectation.
• Take a Break. If conversations get heated,
consider taking a break. As one veteran
observer of public meetings noted “time
can be an anti-inflammatory agent” that can
give people a chance to calm down and
See the full article HERE and more tips for better local government HERE