Practicing Civility in the Face of Defensive Behavior

These ‘daze,’ there is a lot of talk about increased incivility in our work and social interactions. What can we do to engage in fulfilling, productive conversations in the work and at home that do not cause us to react defensively or cause the people we are in dialog with to be defensive? 

I can only speak from my own experiences. After a long career and an even longer life, I conclude that we can only, as my friend Diane Brown says, “control our control-ables.” 

I can only control how I show up. If I show up thoughtfully and openly, I may have a positive impact on how the person I face shows up. 

People tend to respond defensively when they feel attacked.  If I set up the conversation that way, I have less opportunity to connect on the issue at hand and spend the rest of the conversation trying to dig out of some verbal hole IF the other person is still standing there by that point.  

I’m calling it heart work… vs. hard work. Although, in truth, it is a little hard to engage positively with someone who seems to want to pick a fight. So, if I stick to my philosophy, I find it a little easier to move myself to a place of peace and understanding. 

I wrote this book called Civility Rules! The journey of writing the book opened my eyes to deeper elements of what it means to be civil. I found many people believe that civility is about being nice and polite – and it is – at a superficial level. To me, civility is not about being nice to avoid conflict; rather, it is finding a way to communicate what’s in our hearts in a way that can be heard, absorbed, and processed by another, allowing them an opportunity to respond in kind.  

Does it always work? NOPE! I am very human, so that’s why I call it practicing civility. If I lead with my HEART versus my EMOTIONS, I have a better chance of achieving a positive conversation. If I look at another person empathically and compassionately, I am more likely to show up respectfully and my actions might help a conversation move to productivity and promise. But since I cannot control the other person, it is not a guarantee. I will know I tried my best.

So often we seek to control the conversation, agenda, the outcome. At work this is often touted as a wise foreplan – set the agenda, get to the bottom line. But, I prefer meetings that allow enough time for all stakeholders to express themselves and a place for ideas to be respected and acknowledged even if they are not acted upon. That goes for interpersonal, informal conversations as well. 

Pursuing civility in my life and work does not mean I have a goal of creating a safe space where no one is ever triggered or offended. I find that goal to be a distraction from connecting on a human level. I work to behave honorably, with thoughts expressed from the heart in hopes that the result is that no one is triggered, offended, left out, or feels the need to defend themselves. And more importantly, it is not for me to chastise someone for a perceived offense to mankind when they express themselves to me. You may disagree with this perspective, and that’s ok with me. I maintain that calling someone out for their behavior reeks of ego and a self-righteous attitude and falls outside my philosophy of treating people with dignity and respect, even if we think they may not deserve it. This IS hard work.

I realize I am going against the grain here. But, if we are to work to avoid defensive behavior on all sides of a conversation so we can genuinely communicate, I have found that a practice of civility is my go-to behavior. It takes patience, discipline, and heart work to persevere when the blood inside your veins starts to boil.

Often, people who start a conversation with me about the topic of civility start with something like this, 

“What do you do about people who are so rude and uncivil … especially those crazy so and so’s who believe in X and just won’t listen to any other perspectives?”

I am guessing you can see the challenge with this question. 

  • The first part implies we must act to change another person – whom we cannot control. 
  • The second part sets up a potential no-win because there is already a strong bias as to the views of the person posing the question, and p.s., and who is to say whose views are crazy? I believe we use that word too loosely. Differing views offered by reasonable people can have a wide chasm in between, but views are not crazy just because we don’t agree with them.  
  • The final part of the sentence is expecting the other person to listen to us.  

When encountering what I perceive as uncivil behavior, I remind myself, It’s not about them; it’s about me/us and how we choose to engage. I enjoy people with views that are very different from mine. While I am happy to express my beliefs and personal views on things, I find it a much more productive conversation, to begin with, trying to understand theirs. This is again where the heart comes into the picture. I lean on my heart work to show up open, generous, selfless, and giving. I do not have to ever agree with another person’s perspective but I don’t need to make an enemy of them either.

Are there any lines I will not cross? Any areas where I cannot listen to someone’s views with an open mind and heart? If I am being truthful, of course. But I try to revert to my practice of listening to learn. I can always learn something, even if it only validates my position. Rubbing my views in someone else’s face to make them see it my way does not work.

If you have read this far into this thought cloud, I invite you to review my writing style to discover if I have told you what to do in any way. Have I “should” on you at all – as in, you should do this, or do that?  

My words, tone, message, and diction here are chosen with deliberation in hopes of connecting with you on a deeper level and with the hope that we might find some common ground on this topic. I share my journey in a way that I hope might resonate with you. But I cannot control the outcome of your experience. 

And, If I am brave enough to express myself, I must be brave enough to weather some criticism.

My hope is if someone chooses to disagree with me, they might use some of the philosophies I have discussed here and engage with me in kind with respect, trust, dignity, and courtesy. 

If not, I can only control my response, and I promise that will be with a dose of humility, for what I absolutely know is that I do not know all. I know I live life as an eternal student. I know that my beliefs are just that, and beliefs are different from facts. And I also know that my beliefs may be based on what I think is factual but may ‘in fact” not be.  

I cannot make someone else accept or even acknowledge my views. My worldview is through the window I have looked through all the years of my life. It has been expansive and diverse and frustrating and joyful and rewarding and powerful and humbling. 

Just yesterday, I watched this whole concept of reaching into another’s world from the heart unfold beautifully before my eyes. It was not a conversation but a grand gesture. A friend of mine you may have heard of, celebrity chef Guy Fieri, hosted a charity softball tournament where he and country singer Tim McGraw faced off as captains of their teams to raise money for veterans, first responders, and active military. 

There was a magical moment in the game. Guy’s team was winning 17-2. Just like in a conversation that is a little one-sided, the energy from the other team seemed to be waning. In the final inning, Guy bounced onto the field wearing the Team McGraw red jersey instead of his Team Fieri black to begin coaching 3rd base for the McGraw team. The energy in the stadium suddenly and perceptibly shifted. Everyone felt it. The fans, the players, everyone. 

Team McGraw suddenly seemed to have had a boost of hope and proceeded to hit run after run. The final score: 17-9. But the real win was the whole bubble of love in the stadium. To me, this was civility in action. Whether planned or spontaneous, innate understanding of human nature or pure showmanship, Guy stepped up and out, reminding us of the common mission. Once again, my admiration grew for this “Guy” who spreads civility and joy wherever he goes.

I invite you all to travel along this path. I am ever hopeful I can bring light and love into the lives of the people I touch with my heart work, my Joy Journey. Like my friend Guy, I will keep trying to show up representing what I value to bring civility and joy to all I encounter.

This guest post was authored by Shelby Joy Scarbrough

SHELBY SCARBROUGH began her career in the White House as a member of Pres. Ronald Reagan’s advance team, where she helped coordinate such landmark events as the Reagan-Gorbachev Moscow Summit. She then served as a protocol officer in the U.S. Department of State. In 1990, Shelby founded Practical Protocol, LLC, a company that plans bespoke events for foreign dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, and Lech Walesa.

Shelby’s experiences in both public service and the private sector have given her a unique insight into the practices that lead to positive relationships and productive communication between individuals, countries, and societies. Shelby resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is a speaker, entrepreneur, and writer. She is the author of Civility Rules! Creating A Purposeful Practice Of Civility (ForbesBooks / November 17, 2020).


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Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.