Civility and the Surge Protector

©2011 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Do you have a surge protector for your computer? I’ll bet you do! Otherwise, you could burn out your computer during a power surge from a storm, after a power outage or other cause. But do you have a surge protector for your relationships? If you feel a power surge of anger or resentment or blame, do you give your closest friends, family and co-workers the full force of your emotions? Or do you regulate them down several notches before you explain why you are upset and what you want?

Conflict Skills for Relationships

Conflict skills for relationships are different from conflict skills in an adversarial setting – where relationships don’t matter. In relationships, people have to manage their emotions so that they don’t burn out the relationship. Conflict resolution skills in relationships need to operate in the moderate range. We get help from each other by raising our voices, by crying, walking around agitated or other attention-getting behavior. But as soon as we get the full attention we need, we calm down and communicate why we’re upset and what we want in order to solve the problem. We automatically stop ourselves when our emotional responses become too intense and risk causing lasting harm to the relationship.

In wolf packs, when there’s a fight for dominance, at some point the losing wolf bares his or her neck to the winner and that’s a sign to stop the fight. The pack can’t afford to kill off any members, so they go about their business working together as if nothing happened. They can’t waste energy carrying a grudge or continuing to snipe at each other. The same thing happens for baboons (one of our closest social-behavior cousins): they fight until there’s a winner, and then the loser runs off, and then re-joins the group. That’s that. The relationships remain intact, even if the decision-making structure has changed a bit.

Civility in Relationships

It seems that civility is the form this emotion regulation takes for humans. There are clear social rules about acceptable behavior with family, friends and at work that everyone learns growing up. You can swear around your friends, but not around your parents or at work. You can insult your siblings, so long as you make up in a reasonable period of time. You can yell at your spouse briefly, so long as you share problem-solving before the day is over. You can privately tell a worker or colleague that they are doing a bad job, but you can’t do this publically without sacrificing your working relationship. “Public praise and private criticism” is the rule that many managers are taught (or should be).

But the Times, They are a-Changing

We now live in a world where these social rules are not so clear and where different cultures bring different styles of civility. These cultures are clashing today. For example, in some cultures today you are allowed to scream at each other and wave your arms threateningly in the air just inches from the face of the person you are talking to – but you are not allowed to get divorced or have an affair. In other cultures, you’re not supposed to raise your voice too much, but you can get divorced rather easily without even needing a good reason – just irreconcilable differences.

Television shows about workplace behavior emphasize people being extremely self-centered, insulting each other, maybe even screaming at each other on a regular basis – yet there are no consequences. In real life, they would be fired quite quickly. Yet in real life, in some workplace settings, such behavior is increasingly tolerated far beyond normal expectations – and the social rules start to reinforce high-conflict behavior instead of civility.

Our Bystander Entertainment Culture

Our culture appears to be increasingly tolerant of incivility – especially as it permeates all forms of entertainment. As human beings, extreme social behavior grabs our attention. It triggers our amygdala, warning us of danger and shutting down our higher thinking, as it puts us into a fight or flight mode. However, when we observe extreme social behavior that is not going to be personally threatening to us, we become fascinated as bystanders. This appears to be a survival mechanism, as we watch other people fight in order to learn techniques from them for our own future fights – and also to learn how these specific people fight, so that we can protect ourselves from them if or when they fight with us.

But this natural bystander process has become distorted with today’s entertainment media, as we are constantly exposed to intense emotions and incivility in dramas, in politics and in the daily news. The entertainment media wants to grab your attention with constant images of people who don’t use surge protectors, as these media outlets compete for market share. While this is entertaining to most people, it teaches or reinforces the use of unmanaged emotions and extreme behavior in people’s daily lives – power surges which are burning out more and more personal and work relationships.

Do We Really Need Relationships Anymore?

With our technological toys, we have become much more able to survive and thrive as individuals. As I mention in my book It’s All YOUR Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything, we have become a Society of Individuals. We can live alone, feed ourselves alone, work alone and even have sex alone (it’s the biggest business on the Internet).

So maybe we don’t need relationships anymore. Maybe we can say and do anything we want with other people – in other words incivility has no cost and is easier than putting a surge protector on ourselves. In fact, it can even feel like fun to treat others uncivilly: “I sure showed him!!” As on TV, we have become trained to enjoy the feeling of making a dramatic insult and then walking away. Watch any sitcom and you will see how to do that.

While that all seems like good fun, it appears to be contributing to workplace and family dissolutions. In my divorce mediations and workplace consultations, I see more and more people who simply don’t have the skills to manage their own emotions and to regulate what they say to each other. We especially see this in the emails that people send – sometimes even managers and business owners! With role models like these, it’s no wonder that incivility is growing in many settings.

Reverse Expectations

An additional contributor to this problem is today’s changes in child-rearing. In just a couple generations, the norm has shifted from children being “seen but not heard” to children becoming the center of the family universe – and of marketing. We’ve gone from “If you have nothing good to say, then don’t say it” to “Express yourself!” and “Just do it!” Parents feel incredible pressure to tolerate their children criticizing them, behaving any way they like, and even making family decisions.

Growing up this way, children learn that they don’t need surge protectors. They can blast their parents without restraint and then ask for more spending money – and get it! They can attack their friends publically on Facebook and then unfriend them with no sense of remorse.

We are seeing the lack of surge protectors in the increase in school bullying (and more related suicides) and workplace bullying. If families no longer raise children with surge protectors, if social media trains children to let go of the few restraints their parents provided, and if marketing aimed at children rewards them for being self-centered and provocative without restraint – is it any surprise that we’re seeing more incivility in the workplace, in politics and in the news?

The Future

A functioning society needs relationship surge protectors. If more and more individuals are being raised to feel free to use all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behavior in relationships, there will be no more relationships. Yet I believe that we can have a Society of Individuals with all our toys and independence that also includes relationships – satisfying relationships. We just have to regain our balance by making a stronger commitment to managing our own emotions and moderating our own behavior – as individuals and as a society. We used to be able to take these civility skills for granted, but now we need to teach them. Perhaps the concept of relationship surge protectors is a good place to start. What do you think?


BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.

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