J. Reuben Clark Law Society

James Ferrell Addressed the Roots of Civility

“There is something deeper than behavior, isn’t there?”

Author James Ferrell asked this and other important questions as he addressed the J. Reuben Clark Law Society Leadership Conference in early October.

“If we look only at the behavioral level of things, we miss a lot that is really important,” said Ferrell.

Ferrell’s beliefs about behavior and the values that underlie it are reflected in his work; he is managing director for the Arbinger Institute, which “helps organizations, families, individuals, and communities solve the problems created by self-deception.” He has also written several books to help people apply spiritual values in their lives, including The Peacegiver and The Holy Secret.

He explained that much of our behavior is a reflection of our attitudes toward other people. When our behavior shows a sincere belief that all people are just as valuable as we are, problems with civility are much less likely.

According to Ferrell, when we move away from the fundamental truth that we are all on the same level, there are two basic directions we can go. One direction is to elevate ourselves above our fellow beings.

“To see someone as ‘not counting like I count’ is inherently an uncivil way to see them,” said Ferrell.

When we elevate ourselves, Ferrell explained, we look down on others. In that position, we also create in ourselves a need to be justified for thinking the way we do. We might start to focus on the faults of others, or blame them for things they are not totally responsible for.

“We all do unreasonable things to each other, so when we have the need to be justified, there’s always evidence, said Ferrell.

Ferrell showed how sometimes we shift our perception the opposite way, and end up feeling like we are less valuable, or worse than, other people. This action needs correction as well.

Examples of these two types of reactions are all around us, from a father working in his home office who finds himself suddenly annoyed because his family doesn’t answer the door, to a college athlete who perceives a threat to his spot on the basketball team.

At the Arbinger Institute, they call the upper and lower ways of thinking the “better-than” and the “worse-than” boxes. When we are in the boxes, Ferrell says, we carry that way-of-being toward other people and what we think, what we say, and how we treat people will be uncivil.

So how can we keep ourselves from shifting into either of the two boxes? Ferrell’s remarks illustrate that the important principle is to remember that “other people count like I count, and act accordingly.

Closing with a story, Ferrell told of two women who were neighbors. They had been best friends for many years. At some point, one of the two went on vacation and asked her friend to take care of a beloved pet bird. The bird died while its owner was gone, and both of the women took offense, causing them to not talk to each other for 12 years. Eventually, the son of the woman who had been watching the bird when it died went out and bought another bird, and wrote a note as if he had been his mother, apologizing for the episode. Upon receiving the note, the other woman rushed over to the house of her dear friend and apologized profusely. They fell into each other’s arms, reconnected as best friends.

The story illustrates Ferrell’s central message, that in our hearts we all want to spend our time outside of both the “better-than” and “worse-than” boxes.

We might have petty grievances, or grudges we have been carrying around, or we might have found ourselves elevated to the position of looking down on others, but we really want to be on the same level as others because “it’s where we connect with our fellow beings. It’s where love resides.”

Posted: 2009-10-15