Controversy with Civility

Authored by: Joe Wheeless, Assistant Director for Student Leadership Development, Office of Student Leadership Development


Dialogue. Conversation. Discourse. All of these are words that can be used to define Controversy with Civility. What is Controversy with Civility anyway?

To start, it’s a concept that’s part of the Social Change Model. Specifically, one of the 7 C’s needed to enact change in a group or society. But let’s break the concept down; how can three simple words bring so much depth to the Social Change Model.

Controversy is disagreement. It can be public and heated, but it doesn’t always have to be. We see this every day at all levels of society and it’s a natural part of life.

Civility is polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior. If you have ever watched C-SPAN while Congress in in session and seen speeches on the floor, you have witnessed some of the highest levels of civility. Addressing one another in the third person and through the “speaker” is a high form of politeness. Some have argued this is too much civility, but that’s another post for a different blog.

Now we turn to the middle word of this concept, with. I believe this is the most important of the three words. With means that people are things are together in one place. In other words, they BOTH exist together. Let that sink in…. it can be pretty powerful.

To say that disagreement and respectful behavior are existing in the same space is easy to see and understand, but that begs the question, why is it needed for change?

Differing opinions are good for groups and organizations because somewhere in the middle is the path of the organization. Disagreement, conversation, opinions, are all things that build the character of an organization; that make the organization who it is. If you’re trying to make change in a group, there are going to be members of that group who have differing ideas on how that change should happen. The conversation about the in between is where you get the direction you want to go it. So you have to have people in disagreement to move forward. It’s just the disagreement has to come with some respect for the opinions and the person.

There are many ways this concept shows up in daily life. Especially in this election season. But I’m going to keep this post out of the realm of politics.

Controversy with civility is needed and it going to happen in organizations. We are going to disagree and that’s okay. But if we can respect one another for having differing opinions, thoughts, and ideas, our organizations and groups are going to be better for it.

By committing yourself to have respectful disagreement in your organization you commit to having a stronger organization.


This series also serves as a lead up to “Elevating Change Leadership Conference.” This is a conference for student leaders (and advisors) looking to learn more about effective leadership and cultivating impactful change for the causes and organizations they care most about. We hope you will join us for the conference on November 12th!  Please visit our website to learn more about the conference: http://www.wm.edu/offices/studentleadershipdevelopment/leadershipconference/index.php