A Journey Toward a Culture of Civility


By Art Costa and Robert Garmston
Professors Emeriti, California State University, Sacramento

How might we grow and protect a culture in which its members can take risks, learn from each other and continue to appreciate each other’s differences?

Key is mutual respect, in which members reveal their convictions, successes, vulnerably, doubts, worries as much as their joys. Members might be heard saying “I’m not sure what to do now” or “I don’t know how to…” and even “forgive me, I made a mistake…” confident that acceptance and non-judgment is a cultural norm.

We know that a culture of civility exists when members listen to understand, suspend judgment, and respond with curiosity— inviting others to think, reflect, learn, research, create, innovate, share different points of view, and gain insights from one another. In cultures of civility, members are encouraged to express their ideas fully, empathize with expressions of emotion, and show a willingness to let others influence and change them.

Cultures take time to mature. They start, however, with committing to the common values, learning the norms (how we do things around here), meanings of vocabulary, roles and relationships of members. Members of the culture develop a basic literacy of the language: empathy, kindness, forgiveness, manners, consideration, comforting, kind-heartedness, compassion, etc. They learn to recognize acts of civility in others and connect them to their own feeling-full experiences. They deepen their understanding of civility through reading stories and poetry, through learning and interacting with others, reflecting on times when they acted with civility and had others respond (or should have responded) with civility as well.

Over time, they expand these capacities becoming more insightful and skillful and developing a larger repertoire of civil response strategies. They develop internal, meta-cognitive strategies and “self-talk” when confronted with difficult situations. They realize that civility is not just a word; it’s responding to emotions, identified by listening deeply, observing body language, facial expressions, eye movements, tears, posture, and voice intonation etc. In time, they look beyond this context to appreciate the conditions, injustices, oppression, inequity, and feelings of powerlessness that may be producing those emotions.

Initially, it’s easy for group members to engage civility in familiar, often simple contexts. As they embrace civility, they become more sensitive to cues from others and the environment as to when responding with civility is essential and their responses become more consistent and intuitive.

As members realize the value of civility, they recognize that acting civilly leads to better relationships and responsiveness from others and they make a commitment to using civility even more widely. They realize that civility is important not only in a particular context, but also more transcendently as a pattern of behavior in their lives with disadvantaged, disenfranchised populations, with other living creatures and in the environment.

Because of their deepening value of civility, they advocate for its use in the action of others. When conflicts are apparent, they suggest that all parties try to respond with civility. They become more self-reflective— improving, assessing and inviting feedback about their own actions.

When civility is internalized, no prompting is necessary. Instead, they demonstrate and urge others to enrich their environments with care, concern and tenderness. Civility becomes an “internal compass” to guide actions, decisions and thoughts. When confronted with complex decisions, ambiguous tasks, challenging problems, or perplexing dilemmas, civilized people ask themselves, for example, “What is the most civil action I can take right now? What strategies do I have at my disposal that could benefit others? How might I use this opportunity to reaffirm my pledge for justice, dignity, hope and love?”


Robert J. Garmston is an emeritus professor of Education Administration at California State University, Sacramento, and co developer of Cognitive Coaching and Adaptive Schools now at


Leave a Reply

Become an Individual Practitioner!

If you are already using Habits of Mind as part of your daily practice and are committed to nurturing the growth of the dispositions in others, you can pursue becoming an individual practitioner certified by the Institute for Habits of Mind (IHOM).

Follow Us On YouTube

Follow Us

Sign up for our Newsletter

Contact Us

We respond to all messages in the shortest possible time and in the order received.

Request a Consultant

Please include your information below and we will be in contact to learn more about your request!

Learn more about Eduplanet21!

Bring to your school or district!

Claim this offer!

Claim this offer!

Contact Us

Please let us know your interest in the Individual Practitioner Certification Program and we will reach out!

Storyboard IconIHOM - Color wo Tag

Thank you!

You will be contacted with more information regarding your offer within the next week.