Any quick scroll through social media will often provide many examples of how divisive and disrespectful personal interactions have become on a daily basis. Municipalities are not immune to the negative impacts of breakdown in respectful and civil discourse, and this breakdown can not only damage the reputation of a municipality, but also result in employee injuries and civil lawsuits. Even so, there are many steps that municipal representatives can take to help.
The earliest use of the word “civil” means “relating to citizens,” and both elected officials and employees interact with members of the public every day. In today’s language, civility is “an authentic respect for others that requires time, presence, willingness to engage in genuine discourse and intention to seek common ground.”
To build consensus, encourage civil discourse and avoid negative claim situations, municipal employees and elected officials can engage in deliberate strategies in order to develop a foundation of respect while working with their residents to find a common ground.
While it can often be difficult to remain professional in difficult situations, one of the first steps in defusing tense situations is to open up the lines of communication in a calm and respectful manner. Many municipal positions are in public-facing roles, such as utility billing clerks, sanitation workers and police officers, so it is important to also set boundaries and establish actions to take when managing verbal abuse.
Another strategy for encouraging civil discourse is for elected officials and employees to actively listen to the issues and concerns of residents, and the concerns of each other. Active listening helps in developing rapport and trust. It helps all parties involved understand the purpose of communication in order to work towards building consensus in governing the municipality.
When other strategies fail to calm a situation, an intervention may be necessary to avoid further escalation. The type of intervention will be dependent on the situation, but if a culture of civility has been established, corresponding actions should be taken to combat incivility before it develops into workplace violence, civil lawsuits claiming damage to reputation, wrongful termination, retaliation or defamation or other physical altercations.
The strategies mentioned above provide basic tips to develop and maintain civil discourse in municipal and citizen interactions. Be on the lookout for more specific tips and information on the costs of incivility on workers’ compensation and liability claims in future editions of RiskLetter. Future editions will also offer important pointers on encouraging civil discourse in municipal departments such as parks and recreation, public works and police.