Back to the May-Jun 2020 issue

Tips for Promoting Civility and Clear Communication During the Pandemic

By Pamela Whitmore

“Coming together is the beginning, staying together is progress, working together is success.” —Henry Ford

In these times of anxiousness, unease, and virtual interac­tions, this famous quote is even more meaningful. During a crisis, like the current pandemic, communities can either come together or be torn apart.

Illustration suggesting team communicationThe direction your community goes depends a lot on city lead­ership — both elected officials and staff managers. There are tools and tactics you can employ to help promote civility and create a culture of strength and unity.

Practice intentional communication

Working remotely and attending virtual meetings rob par­ticipants of the luxury of reading body language, bumping into co-workers in the hallway, and developing foundations established by spending time together in person. The way both elected officials and staff communicate with others during these times is key.

Use these tips to be more intentional in how you communicate:

Overcommunicate. Write (and speak) with clarity, even more than you normally do. This is especially important when meeting by telephone or Zoom. You’ll want to practice this not only with co-workers and fellow councilmembers, but also with the public. In times of stress and angst, people feel better when they know what’s happening and why. Have a system in place to get as much timely information out to the public as possible — use social media such as Facebook, your city website, email alert systems, local news outlets, etc.

Avoid side conversations. For elected officials, side conversa­tions may violate the Open Meeting Law. But even when they don’t, these conversations can erode trust for any team — be it the council or staff. They can lead to incomplete informa­tion, feelings of exclusion, suspicions about secretive and manipulative actions, and feelings of bias.

Practice listening. Interruptions are frustrating, and elec­tronic meetings are awkward — even more so when people are talking over each other. So, be sure to intentionally work on listening to others before providing your input. With social distancing, you have limitations on getting out into the community, and these meetings are the time to find out what others are hearing and share what you have heard.

Use rules of process for council or board meetings. Rules of process are now more important than ever. The decision-making body likely sits at a virtual dais, where seeing when people want to speak becomes difficult or even impossible. Making sure a process exists for the meeting leader to ask for a motion, a second, and then ask each member if they have input for discussion becomes critical.

Use roll call votes in council or board meetings. Not only are votes by roll call required for telephone and electronic meetings, but they also help minute takers and the public know and understand everyone’s position, so that no dispute arises later on votes.

Foster a team mindset

Highly cohesive teams are more successful. Lack of civility impacts team performance by causing unnecessary stress and tension among team members.

Leaders of highly cohesive teams:

  • Cut people slack — this situation is new and stressful for everyone.
  • Assume good motives of others.
  • Listen to learn, rather than pretending to listen while formu­lating a counter argument.
  • Ask expansive questions, and then patiently wait for a response.
  • Practice interpersonal empathy.
  • Identify individual strengths of team members and recognize their unique contributions to validate belonging.
  • Delegate with clear expectations to empower others.
  • Celebrate success.

Use the right tools

If both council and employees must work remotely to comply with social distancing and protect each other during the pan­demic, then a city should prioritize having solid collaboration tools in place.

Technology can cause stress, so find tools that are easy to use. Department directors and other city leaders should stay in touch with their staff through phone calls, direct messaging, or even video chats.

Remember, your behavior matters

Like it or not, the behavior of the city’s elected officials and staff leaders affects employees’ willingness to join or stay in an orga­nization. It also affects the public’s trust in their government.

Now more than ever, citizens need civility in government to work as the glue to hold things together. Follow the tips shared here to help you cultivate that civility.

Pamela Whitmore is collaboration and mediation manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: pwhitmore@lmc.org or (651) 281-1224.