On Being Civil

On Being Civil — civility is more than politeness. It’s about living from a place of fundamental respect for the dignity and worth of others, and espeially those we choose be in primary relationship with.

In This Moment

And so, here it is, almost Fall. Darbella and I are looking at our next trip out of Canada, likely happening in March 2013, as well as my winding down my Private Practice. Things are still in the dialogue stage, and in the mean time, The Pathless Path appears weekly, and I’m busily working with clients. We’ll keep you posted!


Your mother was right. The two most important words are please and thank you.

That was a joke… sort of.

While The Pathless Path isn’t Romper Room — “please and thank you,” — sometimes we just need a bit of reminding that civility is not a mark of weakness. It’s a demonstration that I can work toward relating with elegance and excellence, without behaving like a dick.

You might be wondering where civility fits in with our favourite themes — elegant communication, openness, and complete honesty. In a sense, civility is the “glue” that holds it all together. I’m being civil when my intention is simply to communicate well, as opposed to scoring points. When I am civil, life itself gets easier.

Several of my clients are experimenting with the Communication Model.

  • They’re noticing that this takes work — repetition, fine tuning, etc.
  • They are learning not to use elegant communicating as a tool to manipulate.
  • Because the model is based upon honesty, half-truths or saying what is expected won’t cut it.
  • And reverting to the game-playing tacks of the past only leads to familiar messes.

There’s an old expression, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Thus it is with any tool.

The Communication Model is a simple tool. And as with many tools, using it gets easier with practice. On the other hand, its misuse (using it as a “hammer,” to “win,” ) is also “easy.”

One of my friends is a carpenter. One day, he and I were building a stud wall. I’ve been doing renovations off and on since the 70’s, and I’ve built a lot of walls. That said, he’s a professional. I watched him repeatedly seat a nail in two to three swings of his hammer, while it took me 10.


I wanted to do what he was doing, so I tried to swing harder, and only succeeded in bending the nail. To his credit he kept a straight face, and didn’t laugh at me. I realized quickly that there is swinging a hammer, and swinging a hammer elegantly and effectively.

And clearly, it has almost nothing to do with the hammer itself. It has to do with the purpose and the skill with which it is wielded.

Thus, a hammer in the hands of a person bent on mayhem will cause incredible damage. It’s the same tool — what’s changed is the intent.

Perhaps, then, all tools might best come
with the first line of the Hippocratic Oath attached:
“First, do no harm.”

Now, how does all of this apply to “please and thank you?”

Well, mommy was trying to teach us to be polite — which is the “baby” version of being civil. In a sense, she was trying to help us to reign in our innate selfishness. She was teaching us to share — to recognize the needs, wants and desires of others.

We were being taught to pay attention to the entire picture, not just our small slice of it.

Now, notice how often, in our interpersonal relationships, we forget all the stuff that mommy taught us. We make demands, have all sorts of expectations and see our role as “smartening up” our partner. We might get good at the Communication Model, and then use it as a bludgeon to try to manipulate our partner into “seeing things the right way.” (Read, “my way.”)

One client learned to use the Model, and also was interested in expressing curiosity instead of always thinking she knew her partner’s mind and intentions.

However, she hadn’t gotten over thinking of her husband as a little boy in need of her correction. She was quite proud of her use of the Communication Model and her curiosity, when she said to him,

So, I’m noticing that you really suck at parenting, and I think you still are stupid, and I’m curious why you are such a jerk.”

That would be mayhem.

What’s missing in many relationships is what might be called an “intrinsic civility.” As a rather crude demonstration, let me tell a story:

You did what with whom???

A teenage client had just terminated therapy. A couple of days later her mom called (I’d seen mom and daughter together twice) and made an emergency appointment. When they came in, mom reported that she’d read her daughter’s diary and had found out she was no longer a virgin. They’d had the weekend from hell, as the mother used verbal bullying to express her displeasure. She was pleased to demonstrate what she’d been doing the whole weekend by reaming out the daughter, repeatedly, during the session.

I interrupted her tirade, and asked the mom what she did for a living. (I knew the answer.) She said, “I teach communication and problem solving at work. And I know why you’re asking. You’re wondering why I’m not using that stuff with my daughter.”

I agreed that I was curious.

Mom replied, “Well, I don’t love the people at work!”

I said, “Oh. I get it. The rule is, treat others with dignity and respect and ream your nearest and dearest an new orifice! Hmm.”

The mom, to her credit, immediately apologized to her daughter. (She also gave up her demand for retroactive virginity…)

The mom’s behaviour was not civil. Her excuse was her sense of betrayal, but that was, simply, an excuse.

The mom was treating the people at work with more civility than her own daughter. And her logic, such as it was, was that she “didn’t love the people at work.” It was only when I stated her belief back to her that she began to suspect that maybe her behaviour, and therefore her belief, was somewhat off the mark.

Clearly, the “loss of virginity” thing was a big deal for the mom — but remember, anyone can communicate elegantly when nothing is wrong! We practice so that, when “biggies” occur, we don’t start bludgeoning.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with whose belief seems to be,

I love you. You’re my (partner, parent, child) and I’m going to demonstrate my love by belittling, badgering, griping, moaning, manipulating and complaining, until I break your spirit and get you to do things the way I want you to do them. When you’re finally broken, I’ll really know you love me.”

The message seems to be,

My job is to make you into a good person (read, a person who behaves exactly as I think you ought to behave) and I’m willing to do anything to make you change. In theory I love you with all my heart; in practice, I despise everything about you.”

Bags of hammers!

Now, I wrote that in strong language to get your attention. I picked the word despise, and you may want to defend yourself by saying, “I don’t despise my partner. I just want him to be a better person.” And I am looking in from the outside, and what I see is a continual barrage of verbiage designed to get the partner to behave differently. If you don’t despise your partner’s behaviour, why the campaign to break his spirit?

At least be honest about your game.

On the other hand, if my goal is to communicate and at the same time to be civil, I would ditch the pressure and the demands and the game playing, and simply enter into dialog about what I am annoying myself over. I would choose to use a style of communication that works, rather than one that hurts.

For example, I know that Darbella hates lectures and being proven wrong. When this happens to her, she shuts down and curls up. On my side, I react with anger if I’m told that I can’t do something.

So, for the 30 years we’ve been together, I’ve resisted lecturing and “wrong-finding” as I communicate with Dar. I choose other approaches that lead to dialog and issue resolution.

Now, some might say,

Well, that’s well and good. But what if your principal style is lecturing and “wrong-finding?” Don’t I have the right to do what comes natural? If my partner loved me, she’d just understand and make allowances for me.”

“I keep doing this and falling over. Hmm.”

I would reply, “Does your approach pass the “utility test?” In other words, does it work?”

Most would say, “No, it doesn’t, but I have the right to be me.”

Yes, you do. And you just might end up “being me” by spending your life all by yourself.

Civility asks, “How do I get the result I want, while treating the other person with dignity, politeness, honesty, and respect?”

And the utility question leads me here: “If I do what Dar dislikes and do what she shuts herself down over, am I accomplishing my goal of communicating and resolving our issue?” If the answer is “no,” (and of course it will be) then I need to ask myself, “Am I engaging in behaviour I know doesn’t work in order to anger, punish or to attempt to hurt Dar?”

In other words, when I do things I know do not work, I need to own that my goal is not resolution.
My goal is to hurt my partner.

In the case of the mom in the above story, I suspect her “real” goal was “I’ve been hurt and disappointed by your behaviour, and I’m going to extract my pound of flesh by hurting you back.”

Now, it’s a continual theme here that no one can hurt us with their words; we hurt ourselves.

So, one could argue that as the mom acted cruelly, and the daughter could have chosen not to hurt herself over it. This is so.

However, my inquiry is this,

Why is the mother lying to herself, and to her daughter, by saying she is trying to “help” her daughter, when the “truth” is she’s actually trying to punish and break her daughter?”

Yes, the daughter can look after herself. But this does not excuse the mother from total responsibility for her own behaviour. The mother needs to get over herself and own what’s up. If her goal is to punish and break, she needs to stop pretending it’s for the daughter’s good.

Civility is all about respecting the person one is engaged with. It can be as simple as please and thank you. It can be as simple as choosing to avoid communication and behaviour ploys that are meant to be hurtful. It can be a simple as remembering that the person I am about to skewer is a person I profess to love.

Ever again, whole living has to do with utility. Whole life has to do with discipline. Whole life is about total honesty. And primarily, whole living has to do with elegantly reaching a resolution.

Relationships are neither wars nor skirmishes. Stop being uncivil.

Make Contact!

So, how does this week’s article sit with you? What questions do you have? Leave a comment or question!

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

2 thoughts on “On Being Civil”

  1. I appreciate that you express yourself as it comes and do not sugar coat words and phrases. Again, we are responsible for how we feel although at times it is difficult to be elegant, and, it can be less so to be mildly civil during the tough moments. (Boy, if I could just remember that!)

    Thanks for what you do.


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