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by P. M. Forni
St. Martin's Press, 2002
Review by Daniel L. Buccino, L.C.S.W.-C., B.C.D. on Mar 25th 2002
psychotherapist, I work with many patients who, for a variety of reasons, just
cant seem to get along with other people.
As a teacher of psychotherapy, I work with trainees who are learning how
to get along with their patients, who, in turn, cant get along with
others. As a parent educator, I face
many questions about how to help families run better and how to help children
behave better. As a corporate
consultant, I work with organizations that aspire to higher levels of service
excellence with both internal and external customers. And, after 9-11, many have argued that the best first line of
defense against terrorism must be not to inflict the microcruelties of
incivility on those with whom we come into contact daily.
P.M. Fornis small but mighty new
reference, Choosing Civility, is the only book I can recommend to all
audiences. And if readers are open to
his insights and willing to do things differently to improve their
relationships at home and at work, Choosing Civility may be the only book
theyll ever need.
professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University and cofounder of
the Hopkins Civility Project, has produced a book that is at once smart yet
accessible to a wide audience. It is
full of concrete examples and personal anecdotes, and it is written in a warm,
engaging tone that is usually impossible for academics to achieve.
Forni offers 25 bite-sized
meditations on topics central to civil living such as acknowledgement,
agreeableness, attentiveness, assertiveness, and apologies. His insights may appear simple but they are
far from easy to put into practice on a regular basis and remind us that the
eternal truths do bear repeating. Common
sense is not always common practice.
Yet choosing civility is the best way to choose a better quality of
We dont wait for civility to
happen, offers Forni. We work for it
when we are smart enough to imagine its rewards.
Though it will eventually appear
effortless, civility requires work, conscious effort guided by vision and
perseverance. We make nice after all,
but the practice of civility, as Fornis well-sourced text reveals, is the
royal road to health and happiness. Not
only is civility the path to personal contentment and connection, but its good
for business too. Often, nice guys do
Those with an interest in good
manners are often accused of being either fussy or superficial, or masters at
the art of duplicity. Civility is
about far more than how to set the table.
Choosing Civility makes the argument most persuasively that
civility does not represent concealment and inauthenticity but rather offers a
model of restraint and tolerance that makes real expression and meaningful
relationships possible. Forni has
described excess self regard as being a drunkenness of the self and calls
civility our inner designated driver.
We have been led astray
by the culture of therapy and self-esteem into thinking that it is somehow more
honest to be in touch with our feelings and blurt out whatever comes to mind to
whomever we encounter rather than seeing training in etiquette as being
training in sensitivity. Civility does
not deny us the opportunity to express ourselves (Indeed Forni himself has
noted that his longest chapter is, Assert Yourself.), but it helps us find
the tools to say the right thing at the right time to the right person, not
everything to anyone. This is
consistent with Freuds lessons on free association that often come as surprise
to students of, and patients in, therapy. Good psychotherapy will help people
speak freely, not intemperately or abusively.
therapists know that establishing a warm, empathic, genuine, and collaborative
relationship with our patients is one of the most central features of the
treatment. Choosing Civility
offers many valuable relationship management strategies to guide the practice
of psychotherapy. Most therapists are
thought to be good listeners but Forni offers more specific guidance for
listening, paying attention, acceptance, creating hope and speaking
kindly. Therapists are not just born,
but can be made; Fornis instruments of civility can be used to help make
better counselors, just as the surgeons equipment can improve her performance.
continues to reveal that relationship factors common to all forms of
psychotherapy are more important to successful outcome than specific technical
factors unique to one particular model.
Choosing Civility offers specific recommendations for things to
say and do differently, and we know that thinking and doing things differently
can cause one to feel differently. And
insofar as a text in civility offers lessons in positivity, as Fornis does, we
can build on its hopefulness to restore some healthy optimism in our colleagues
and our patients.
is like deliberate trudging in the mud, cautions Forni, and we must be mindful
where we spread our mess if we cant always avoid the muck.
successful, long-lasting marriages reveals that those in which partners are
able to be open to each others influence and opinions and be ready to say,
maybe youre right, are those with a better capacity to endure
difficulties. Choosing Civility
implicitly builds on these findings and offers useful insights for domestic
life. In chapters on how to Respect
Others Opinions, Be Agreeable, Respect Even a Subtle No, and Accept
and Give Praise, Forni provides tips on how to build bridges to connection
rather than to difference and disagreement.
If we can agree that it is with those to whom we are closest that we
should most want to get along, and therefore be on our best behavior, than
lessons in civility will offer pathways to openness, compromise, and
appreciation which will help any family navigate the toughest of times.
families, a principal responsibility is raising children. A training in civility is part of our basic
training as social beings, Forni tells us:
First manners, then love. And
it is at home that these lessons are reinforced and all will have learned to practice
respect, restraint, concern, and benevolence.
It is in
todays workplace that many complicated and painful issues of difference and
diversity are played out. Though we
know workers at all levels and in all industries are distressed by specific discourtesies,
civility in the workplace goes far beyond concerns about who took the last cup
of coffee and didnt make a new pot, or who ate anothers lunch from the
communal refrigerator. Choosing
Civility offers guidance about not only how to take better care of our
customers but how to take better care of each other. A civil workplace is productive in more ways than one, and one
of the things it produces is good service, argues Forni. In chapters on respecting others time and
space, thinking twice before asking for favors, avoiding personal questions,
giving constructive criticism, and on how to play the game rather than just win
it, Forni offers useful interventions for us to better work among colleagues
toward a common goal.
powerful combination of self-respect and respect for others should make it
almost impossible for us to choose incivility, Forni says, yet many do. And when they do, whether at the office, on
the road, in the store, or at home, we are struck out by the Three Strikes of
Incivility. First, we are
inconvenienced or treated rudely by others.
Second, we are diminished by the others dismissal of our existence in
their uncivil actions. Third, we are
left with the burden of how or whether to respond to the slight. Rudeness, therefore, begets conflict with
others but also conflict within ourselves, and the latter can prove as hurtful
as the former. We all strive to not
give our power away to those uncivil souls in our midst. Civility requires that we try to be polite
to everyone, even those who have been rude to us, not because they are civil
but because we are.
important intervention in Choosing Civility is in its calling attention
to the insincere apology and the blame shift.
Politicians, corporate malefactors, and other uncivil sorts are quick to
say, Im sorry you feel that way, as if our reactions are the problem, not
the result of something they did.
Lighten up, were told after the offensive comment or insensitive work
assignment. Civility requires taking
responsibility for ones actions, a reality that is rapidly receding, most
recently at Enron where nobody seemed to know what was going on. Forni offers very particular language for
making sincere apologies, the simple decent words that soothe the bruised
soul, rather than exacerbating the offense by shifting blame.
choosing civility resembles living by the Golden Rule, Forni helps us take it
one step further. In a radical yet
liberating proposal, Forni suggests that even though we may tolerate some
behavior and think it OK for ourselves, others may not. Therefore we will want to restrain ourselves
on the chance that we may offend others.
We should not always be so quick to assert our own rights. It is rude to expect others to just get
over it if they are uncomfortable with choices we make. They are as entitled to their feelings as we
are to ours and if we are all to get along we must stay open to the influence
of others. Especially in our post-9-11
environment of renewed patriotism, one of the best and most consistent ways we
can stand united against terrorism is to not be rude to each other.
Though there is a profoundly
spiritual dimension to civility and how we choose to conduct ourselves in the
world, Choosing Civility makes clear that there are very compelling
secular reasons for choosing civility.
Its good for us. Its good for
business. Its good for our families, our children, our pets, our patients, our
colleagues, our customers, our health, and our environment.
P.M. Forni deserves great acclaim
for developing such potent yet easy to digest remedies for many of todays ills
and for offering all of us an invitation to reconnection. Everything about relationships is knowable,
if we want to know it and do it enough.
Choosing Civility is the ideal companion while we risk reaching
© 2002 Daniel L. Buccino
Buccino is Co-Director of The Baltimore-Washington Brief Therapy Institute
and on the faculties of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the
Smith College and University of Maryland Schools for Social Work.