I Know This Will Work. I Know It.

Today I wept as I read my news feed on Twitter.

It feels like the world has gone mad, and that no country or city is immune from this wave of unkindness.

Because that’s what I call all this bullshit that’s going on.


It doesn’t matter where you look, it seems people are being unkind to one another.

  • Anyone in the public eye is an open target for hostile and hurtful language.
  • Political discourse has ceased to be a way to discuss ideas and theories, even those that appear to be conflicting.
  • People are targeted more and more frequently (or at least more openly) because of any one of a number of qualities of their appearance or lifestyle or economic situation or geographic location.

Even opinions on movies prompt the most hateful language.

It’s astonishing, and the list is endless.

Before I talk about what I think we can do about it, each of us in our own little corner of the world, I want to talk about a couple of points of theory, so bear with me.

Communicative Incompetence

There is an 88 year-old German sociologist and philosopher named Jürgen Habermas who has spent much of his life working on “communicative rationality,” which says:

In order for humans to be reasonable and reach understanding, there must be successful communication.

You’re probably thinking to yourself, “That’s a bit obvious, no?”

Stay with me. There’s more.

Whiteboard Consulting Group Inc.

Habermas teaches us that human conflict is the result of miscommunication, and that miscommunication is the result of communicative incompetence.

In order to be really competent according to Habermas’ model, three things must be true, all at the same time:

1. The truth of the statement is shared by the speaker and the listener, meaning that we have agreed on the facts of the situation.

2. The listener understands the speaker’s intention and doesn’t immediately assume they’re a jerk or an idiot if their language or argument isn’t perfect, especially in a heated discussion. An example might be someone you work with who, when stressed, can sound angry, even though they really aren’t. Because you understand that, you can focus on the content of the message rather than being annoyed with the angry tone.

3. The speaker has adapted to the listener’s worldview. This means communicating with the other person by first understanding where they are coming from (walking a mile in their shoes, for instance), and then modifying our approach based on their context. This makes it a lot easier for them to understand us and what we are saying, and why. Let’s break that down a bit more.

Whiteboard Consulting Group Inc.

How much less conflict would there would be in our world, our work, and even our homes if we could employ even one of the three components of Habermas’ model more effectively?

  • If we could get rid of Alternative Facts.
  • If we could assume the best intentions in people with whom we are communicating.
  • If we could figure out how to put ourselves in our listeners’ shoes.

Incivility — The New “It” Topic

We teach a course called “The Process of Communication,” and in it we work with our participants to help them understand two basic things:

  1. What their communication style is, and
  2. That not everyone else communicates like they do.

Not surprisingly, especially in light of Habermas’ model, understanding these two things is key to effective communication.

Part of understanding the differences in our communications styles includes understanding what happens when we are misunderstood or when our behaviour has an unintended consequence.

This is where incivility comes in.

When we first developed this course for a client in the Healthcare industry, we were asked to talk about “incivility in the workplace.” A little research showed us a few interesting articles, and we were able to tie them nicely to the client’s own internal survey on incivility which showed the top three uncivil behaviours identified by staff to be:

  • Condescension,
  • Gossip, and
  • Being ignored. (This included eye-rolling and shushing people.)

I found this enlightening, as I had expected it to be interrupting, shouting, bullying, and other more aggressive behaviours.

But no. Incivility runs on a spectrum, and the less aggressive behaviours build up to cause a toxic workplace.

One 2013 study from Harvard Business Review showed that managers at Fortune 1000 companies spend an averages of seven weeks per year dealing with the results of incivility.

Googling the same topic today showed me pages and pages of recent articles and studies on the topic with titles like:

So all this has been building for a while. This incivility, intolerance, and this unhappiness in general.

Here’s What You Can Do About It

Fixing incivility in the workplace is a whole post (a book, really) on its own. I want to talk about what I believe YOU (and I) can do about this tsunami of unkindness.

If you have any Social Media accounts or listen to any one of a zillion terrific podcasts, then you know that the number one way to improve how things are going in your city or country is to vote.

Register to Vote. Then vote.

The next thing to do is to make your voice heard by being active in your community. Talk to your local representatives, write, phone, visit their offices and make your opinions known in a respectful and open and effective way.

Channel your inner Habermas.

Those things are givens. They are the things we must do as members of our society.

This last one though, this is what I think is needed in HUGE doses.

As Ellen Degeneres says, “Be kind to one another.”

That’s it.

Just be kind.

Does this mean be a doormat? Do you need to turn the other cheek until it’s raw?

No of course not.

But it does mean that you should think twice before you yell at the guy who cut you off on the freeway. It’s possible he’s a jerk, but it’s more likely that he’s late or he didn’t realize he did it.

It does mean that the woman who looked at you funny probably wasn’t looking at you at all, so there’s no need to sneer or make a nasty comment to your friend. She probably was thinking about something and has Resting B*tch Face. (PS — that’s me. My face gets me in SO much trouble! But I digress.)

It does mean that when a bus driver is rude to you, you don’t need to be rude back. Remember the driver doesn’t even KNOW you, so how can it be about you?

Does it excuse the behaviour?


But it does mean that you don’t need to respond in the same way.

You know, most people aren’t jerks.

And here’s the last thing.

Being kind will rejuvenate you.

I promise, it will.

Today after reading the awful news around the world I had to go run some errands and I got stuck in a grocery store during a torrential downpour. An older lady was standing near me fretting because she had to get home and didn’t know how she would get to her car.

I had an umbrella so I suggested we walk together and so off we went, through the driving rain.

We both got wet, and we both laughed like little kids.

She smiled as she got into her car, and I felt immensely better, although soaking wet.

Kindness is the antidote.

I’m not so naive as to believe it will solve everything, but it sure will be a start, and will make you feel better in the process, so what is there to lose?