Washington Lawyer - January 2018 - 30
your perspective, then you have to question how
productive a dialogue will be," Heffner says. "So ask,
can this be a constructive exchange?"
Civility can have a lot of different meanings.
Described in the Cambridge Dictionary as "the
quality of being polite," civility comes from the Latin
word civilis, which means citizen.
Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown
University's McDonough School of Business, defines
incivility as "rudeness, disrespect, or insensitive
When Americans bemoan a lack of civility in society,
they often mean a lack of courtesy in public discourse. When civil discourse is described in connection with the First Amendment, the phrases often
used are "respectful discourse" or "respect for
Sadly, we are increasingly incapable of discussing
politics in a civil manner, says Alexander Heffner,
a journalist, civic educator, and host of The Open
Mind on PBS. "Our politics is raging with personal
animus," Heffner says.
Even outside of political debates, incivility rears
its ugly head, particularly in confrontations with
opposing counsel, lawyers say. Studies present the
picture of an increasingly rude society, with incivility
in the workplace dramatically mounting over the
decades. For example, in one study from 1998, one
quarter of individuals surveyed reported being
treated rudely at work at least once a week. In
2016 that number rose to 62 percent, according
to Christine Porath, author of Mastering Civility:
A Manifesto for the Workplace.
Porath suggests that the cost of incivility in a workplace is "much greater than you think."
"Incivility decreases motivation, performance,
creativity, and retention," Porath says. "Incivility is
also tied to greater stress and health care costs."
Fiery debate in American politics is nothing new,
nor is the feeling that our country is hopelessly
divided. But for many observers, civility in politics
has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. For some,
the blame lies with Democrats. For others, the
blame lies with Republicans, and particularly
President Trump's active Twitter account.
Whether Trump's language and tactics on and off
Twitter have helped encourage a rudeness in public
debate will doubtless be discussed by historians in
later years. Regardless, anyone who has tried to
discuss politics during the campaign and Trump's
initial year as president can attest to the ugliness
that permeates political discussion.
Lawyers struggling to maintain civility in their professional lives need to first take care of themselves
mentally, emotionally, and physically, according to
Jeena Cho, a lawyer and co-author of The Anxious
Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying
Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation.
Cho recommends the basics: get enough sleep,
exercise, and eat a healthy diet. Cho also recommends meditation to help with being in the
Cho also suggests "bringing a lens of kindness and
compassion to every moment." She advises lawyers
to think carefully before plunging into a political
discussion, as these conversations can get heated
and even nasty.
And the first step, Heffner says, is to know when to
talk, when to listen, and when to avoid a pointless
debate with someone unwilling to consider your
* JANUARY 2018
A SURVIVAL GUIDE
"It sounds like kindergarten stuff, but when we are
stressed, these are the first things that go out the
window," Cho says. "Ask yourself: Am I doing the
basics to maintain my own well-being? If you are on
Facebook 12 hours a day because you are arguing
about politics, then you are not maintaining your
"Lawyers understand the deliberative process . . .
and how to consider disparate perspectives," says
Heffner, who recently discussed "Civil Discourse
in an Uncivil Age" at Penn State's Dickinson Law
School. "Lawyers . . . should be on the front lines of
undermining the prevalent incivility in the culture,"
30 WASHINGTON LAWYER
"I made the mistake of bringing up the election,
and jokingly said something to my friend's husband
about it, which I don't think he took as a joke," Bukar
says. "He became enraged and screamed at me in
front of my son. He and I have not spoken since."
In July 2017, a poll from PBS NewsHour and National
Public Radio found that 70 percent of Americans
believe that political civility has worsened since
Trump was elected president.
But, according to Heffner, lawyers are particularly
well equipped to help reverse this trend by
modeling civil behavior.
"If you think from the initial back and forth that
there won't even be the willingness to understand
Nancy Bukar, in-house counsel for a Washington,
D.C.-area company, describes a particularly
unpleasant discussion at a friend's house before
"Be clear about your intentions for engaging in
political debates both online and in person,"
Cho says. "Are you trying to prove another person
wrong, or are you trying to understand another
person's perspective? It's a good place to stop if you
are noticing that you are going out of alignment
Alexander Heffner, courtesy of Alexander Heffner; Christine Porath
by Bonnie Holland; Jeena Cho by Natalie Jenks