Civility: It’s Not Just Robert’s Rules

Making democracy work in our community is more than a process of showing up and playing by the written rules. It’s also a matter of working respectfully with our neighbors to define our common interests. Some Bristol residents have expressed that they are “turned off” or even frightened by town meeting and other public discussions, because they dislike uncivil discourse. It might only take one unpleasant experience to lose a citizen’s valuable participation for life. What are some of the ways we can help our town succeed? A few reminders:

Listen Actively. When others are speaking, stay engaged. Try not to tune out in order to formulate your response; instead, work to find the underlying meaning of the speaker’s words. You may find out you have more in common than you think.

Speak respectfully. Conflict is a natural part of life, and it’s good common sense to be constructive in our confrontations. At points of conflict, stay away from personalities, and stay focused on the issue and possible solutions.

Ask questions. If someone isn’t being clear, they’ll be glad you gave them a chance to clarify themselves. And if it’s the process that confuses you, chances are at least one other person is wondering about it, too. Raise your hand and ask.

Use your imagination. Usually, there is an answer out there that meets the most important needs of the diverse parties.

Celebrate and appreciate your neighbors. Perhaps one of the nicest sights at the end of a town meeting is two people who were on opposite sides of a debate shaking hands and chatting. Participation takes work, and we can all appreciate those who care enough to speak out about our community.

Keep your sense of humor. After all, Vermonters are known for it.