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Bringing Civility to Verbal Conflict

Imagine a regularly-called public meeting and an angry group of residents in attendance. 

It might be about a controversial incident, or a policy or a decision that the governing body has pursued. No matter what created the tension, concerned people have come to the meeting and want to say something about it. 

This situation can be familiar to both municipal councilmembers and to school board members. Because these types of public officials often face some of the same challenges, the Municipal Association of SC partnered in 2023 with the South Carolina School Boards Association in pursuit of initiatives that focus on civility in public life.

Most recently, this partnership led to a joint training session for elected officials of both groups, “Bringing Civility to Verbal Conflict.” Led by Harry Dolan of the Dolan Consulting Group, a retired police chief, the session gave public officials communication skills to deescalate volatile situations and help maintain a governmental organization’s professionalism.

Harry Dolan, a retired police chief, led a civility training session for both the Municipal Association of SC and the SC School Boards Association in October.
Harry Dolan, a retired police chief, led a civility training session for both the Municipal Association of SC and the SC School Boards Association in October.

South Congaree Mayor Cindy Campbell was one of the elected officials to attend the session. 

The session, Campbell said, was “an essential tool for individuals aspiring to become better leaders and elected officials. This training has been proven to be effective, and Chief Dolan provided practical takeaways that, if implemented, can make a significant impact in our community and the people we serve.”

Hometown Happenings podcast with Dolan

Those who did not attend the session can hear from Dolan on the Hometown Happenings podcast with Municipal Association Executive Director Todd Glover, found at (keyword: podcast). Glover and SC School Boards Association Executive Director Scott Price came together to talk about why verbal conflict training is so critical. 

In the podcast, Glover used a famous quote from the boxer Mike Tyson, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” to illustrate how rapidly incivility can derail a public meeting.

Councilmembers might be prepared for a meeting, Glover said, but in the face of an unexpectedly contentious public comment period, “the whole meeting plan goes away.” 

A key solution to this, as Dolan described, is the “life skill” of being able to verbally deescalate situations, but it’s also one that appears to have become less and less common as people have grown more willing to voice their anger publicly. 

One key to the process, he said, is the ability to listen to someone expressing why they are upset, giving them adequate time to express their feelings, and paraphrasing what they are saying back to the person to demonstrate understanding.

“The most powerful word in the English language, in my opinion, is empathy — to be able to see the world through someone else’s eyes,” Dolan said. 

He added that nonverbal indicators also play a critical role in the process.

“Your nonverbal is 93% of your message,” he said. “93% of my message is the accent of my voice, my intensity, ebb and flow, all of that.” 

Civility Initiative 

The Municipal Association’s and SC School Board Association’s civility work did not begin overnight. For the SCSBA, Price said that the need for written standards of civility and “making sure you’re working well together as a board” became apparent in part because of the anger seen in the national political environment after the 2020 elections. 

Glover described the joint training with SCSBA as “the first of many. This is not going to be a one-and-done, this is going to be something that we are working together on for the long haul.” 

All of the Association’s civility resources are available. This includes the “Pillars of Civility,” a sample civility resolution, a ceremonial version of the sample resolution that councils can display, as well as a letter-size and poster-size version of the civility resolution.