The choice between insightful and inciteful words

Civil society and civility

Non-profit organisations often characterise themselves as being part of ‘civil society’. Civil society has been defined and redefined over many years, but it broadly refers to “a wide array of organisations: community groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations and foundations” (World Bank). As other ‘for-purpose’ and social enterprise models have emerged, alongside entities promoting transparency, sustainability, and accountability, the boundaries for ‘civil society’ have also expanded.

Historically, the purpose of civil society was to achieve eudaimonia – common wellbeing or flourishing. Aristotle used the term to refer to the highest human good, and defined this as the aim of practical philosophy (applied ethics). (Recommended reading: Practical wisdom: The right way to do the right thing, by Barry Schwarz and Kenneth Sharpe, Riverhead books, 2010)

In our interpersonal communications, being ‘civil’ simply means being courteous and polite with each other. In other words, treating others as we would like to be treated. Again, therefore, the term refers to common wellbeing.

Hijacked emotion

As advocates for various causes, non-profit organisations make extensive use of social media and various other methods to engage target audiences, and even to issue ‘calls to action’. Regrettably, sometimes when we appeal to emotions the intended outcome of advocacy action gets lost, with poorly managed emotions taking over.

We see this happening when advocates start attacking opponents (ad hominem arguments) rather than focusing on the issue or problem, and the associated evidence.

Separate the people from the problem

Calibrating our words (as suggested in the header image), whether in a meeting, in social settings, or in the heat of an advocacy campaign, requires some level of mindfulness, along with an unshakeable commitment to ‘the common good’. Even when provoked by personal attacks, we do no good for the cause we represent if we resort to insults and inciteful words.

The four key principles underpinning the negotiating method recommended in the seminal reference Getting to Yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in (by Roger Fisher and William Ury, Hutchison. 1982) are highlighted in the chart below.

The words we use and the ’emotional’ tone we employ (in written or oral forms) will reflect the extent to which we have internalised the principles recommended by Fisher and Ury. Negative emotions tend to impede effective engagement and the capacity to reach agreement. Conversely, positive emotions tend to enable agreement.

The notion that you can’t argue with an angry person applies to both parties of course. Just as you won’t persuade another person of the legitimacy of your views if they are angry, you won’t budge them if you are angry either.

The emotional dimension of negotiation (and advocacy too I suggest) is the subject of a later book by Roger Fisher, this time with Daniel Shapiro – Building Agreement: Using emotions as you negotiate. Core concepts that motivate people form the central themes in this very helpful sequel.

Beyond the arguments based on effective methods of helping people to better align with your perspectives, there are also of course risk management reasons for avoiding insulting or inciteful language.

Our words and actions need to be insightful rather than inciteful.*

*As noted in a previous post, homonyms are words that sound the same but have different meanings. ‘Insightful’ and ‘inciteful’ are homonyms, but they are also an example of homophones (a subset of homonyms), words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings.

Trolling and cyberbullying

Public health and other advocates have become victims of trolling and cyber-bullying increasingly of late, particularly since COVID appeared. The UK Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) recommends the Troll Counterstrategy outlined in the chart below.

If you or your team have been victims of trolling or cyberbullying, seek support from local health and cyber-safety groups. In Victoria, the Better Health Channel offers resources and advice on these issues, including links to mental health helplines.

See also:

Headspace cyberbullying resources

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