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Laying the Groundwork for Civility

Governing is often a process of building consensus that requires the fostering of relationships between the individual members of a city council. Elected officials also need to maintain relationships with the residents they serve and the partner organizations that help them pursue projects.  

Breakdowns in civil discourse can damage the reputation of local government and erode the democratic process. Failure to keep a dialogue respectful can lead to heated exchanges among council members at a meeting, or even confrontations outside of council chambers or on social media. 

To avoid these pitfalls, councilmembers and other officials must employ deliberate strategies to build the kind of courteous working relationships that can prevent conflicts before they become a problem. 

Communicate thoughtfully 
An ongoing emphasis on communication can often prevent conflict. Communication breakdowns can take the form of a mayor or other councilmember withholding meaningful information from the other members of council on policy items, events, or messages that the city is sending out. A councilmember attempting to act on behalf of the city without the knowledge of the full council can cause conflict. Communication on councils, committees, boards and commissions should be a shared responsibility among their members and always aim to demonstrate mutual respect and a willingness to be inclusive and collaborative. 

Focus on the long-term trajectory of relationships
At the local level, conflict can often focus on a disagreement of how to handle a specific issue. Many times, councilmembers who find themselves at odds on one issue may find themselves needing to partner on another. Because progress on overall municipal goals resembles a marathon rather than a sprint, officials need to focus on cultivating long-term relationships. Every needlessly aggressive exchange depletes the credibility of officials in the eyes of those they work with, and those reserves can be difficult to rebuild. 

Beware of the divisive potential of social media 
A couple of decades after social media became widespread, its ability to promote division and anger has become better understood. With its tendency to separate people into like-minded groups, social media can create a temptation for people to engage in antagonistic, bullying or otherwise counterproductive behavior. 

Officials using social media should be mindful of these pitfalls. They need to remember that their behavior online reflects on the city and they should aim to keep communication in this sphere professional. This can help stop conflict before it begins and make the work of municipal governance easier.