Civility: a core component of professionalism?

Webster’s Dictionary defines civility as “polite, reasonable and respectful behavior.” However, growing consideration has produced a more nuanced, sophisticated and helpful definition. This expanded definition highlights that civility entails honoring one’s personal values, while simultaneously listening to disparate points of views. Civility transcends politeness and encompasses pursuing shared ideas to reach common ground. Prioritizing civility facilitates effective communication, high-functioning teams, inclusive and productive communities and civic engagement.

Although civility has received limited attention in psychology, it has received considerable focus in other disciplines (Clark, 2013; Sarat, 2014). Moreover, social psychologists have attended to the importance of civil discourse vis-à-vis challenging topics such as politics and religion (Haidt, 2012). Workplaces are implementing civility training programs to reduce incivility and burnout, foster respectful and enjoyable work settings and increase people’s engagement (Osatuke, Leiter, Belton, Dyrenforth & Ramsel, 2013). In 2016, the American Psychological Association initiated a work group to develop civility principles and procedures to guide interactions among organization members, partly in response to critiques raised by the report of the “Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture.”

Recently, psychologists have begun articulating the essential components of the professionalism competency and have included civility under this rubric (Grus et al., 2015). Civility is included with the recognition that it is, as are other aspects of professionalism, culturally informed and may manifest differently across cultural groups and contexts (Davetian, 2009).

There are myriad ways in which civility is germane to the goals of undergraduate education in psychology. The APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major (APA, 2013) articulates the learning goals and outcomes of the psychology major. Accordingly, the following are three key examples from the guidelines’ comprehensive learning goals of ways to address civility and why we believe it is an important construct in the teaching of undergraduate psychology.

A comprehensive appreciation of civility entails ethical decision-making, especially when done in collaboration with other people in society (Lane & McCourt, 2013). This is consistent with Goal 3’s focus on ethical and social responsibility in a diverse world. In courses and experiential activities focused on psychology ethics, attention must be paid to civility as a core ethical value that informs interpersonal interactions and supports social justice engagement. We are not advocating the use of classroom civility contracts that stifle authentic expressions of ideas and opinions. Rather, we are recommending that instructors engage students in dialogues about the reasons for being civil, the characteristics of civil discourse and the value of engaging as a civil member of a social group (Scales, 2010). Such discussions also must address the challenges of civility, such as its possible conflict with First Amendment rights, its potential propensity for political correctness rather than authentic dialogue and the cultural bias surrounding its meaning (Kranich, 2013). Moreover, we support problem-based learning efforts related to the principles of civility and the use of interactive and interconnected mindfulness-based learning approaches to guide ethical decision-making (mindful ethics) and social engagement (Jacobowitz & Rogers, 2014).

Goal 4 focuses on communication. This domain emphasizes the importance of clearly communicating one’s ideas, especially interpersonally. Inherent in civility is the ability to authentically communicate one’s own personal ideas, while also respecting and not dismissing other people’s outlooks. Thus, civility demands that one be committed to remaining actively engaged in dialogue in a manner that assures all voices are heard, even those with which one disagrees intensely. One way this could be facilitated in classrooms is through didactic exercises, such as constructive controversy. Through constructive controversy, students are taught to be critical of ideas but respectful of people and to illuminate facts and ideas supporting both sides in order to arrive at the best possible solution. Such exercises create a learning culture characterized by civility, partnerships and the pursuit of shared goals and common understanding (Mills, 2010).

Goal 5 addresses professional development and encompasses effective self-reflection, teamwork skills and leadership abilities (Clark, 2013). In line with this goal, civility includes the ability to think deeply about respectful interactions, foster collaboration and successfully encourage others. The Clark Workplace Civility Index (Clark, 2013) can be used in courses and supervised experiential activities as a tool to encourage civility and self-reflection in the context of professional development. This index includes questions such as “Do I, majority of the time…assume goodwill and think the best of others?” and “Do I, majority of the time…encourage support and mentor others?” Routine reflection in these ways is paramount to the overall development of budding psychologists and contributing members of society.

Incivility in an academic environment has a negative impact on the well-being of faculty members and students, interferes with the development and maintenance of positive relationships and impedes the teaching and learning process (Clark & Kenaley, 2011). Creating a culture of civility and constructive reciprocal engagement where all parties feel safe and empowered requires active collaboration between faculty and students (Clark & Kenaley, 2011). When civility is prioritized in undergraduate psychology education, ethical decision-making, interpersonal effectiveness, authentic communication and leadership are encouraged. These characteristics, enveloped in the construct of civility, are essential to creating a society responsive to multicultural and global concerns and serving as the basis for meaningful civic engagement.

Re posted with permission from the American Psychological Association’s Psychology Teacher Network


American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0: Retrieved from

Clark, C. (2013). Creating and sustaining civility in nursing education. Indianapolis: Sigma Theta Tau International.

Clark, C.M., & Kenaley, B.L.D. (2011). Faculty empowerment of students to foster civility in nursing education: A merging of two conceptual models. Nursing Outlook, 59, 158-165. doi: 10.1016/j.outlook.2010.12.005.

Davetian, B. (2009). Civility: A cultural history. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press Incoroporated.

Grus, C.L., Lease, S.H., Shen-Miller, D.S., Jacons, S.C., Bodner, K.E., Van Sickle, K.S., et al. (2015). Professoinalism: A competency cluster whose time has come. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Vintage Books.

Jacobowitz, J.L., & Rogers, S. (2014). Mindful ethics — a pedagogical and practical approach to teaching legal ethics, developing professional identity, and encouraging civility. St. Mary’s Journal on Legal Malpractice & Ethics, 4, 198-241. Retrieved from

Kranich, N. (2013). Can the first amendment coexist with civility? Response to “What is the role of law in promoting civility? What are its limits?” Insights on Law & Society, 13, 30. doi: 10.7282/T37P8W90.

Lane, S.D., & McCourt, H. (2013). Uncivil communication in everyday life: A response to Benson’s “The rhetoric of civility.” Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric, 3, 17-29. Retrieved from

Mills, B.J. (Ed.). (2010). Cooperative learning in higher education: Across the disciplines. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.

Osatuke, K., Leiter, M., Belton, L., Dyrenforth, S., & Ramsel, D. (2013). Civility, Respect and Engagement at the Workplace (CREW): A national organization development program at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Journal of Management Policies and Practices, 1, 25-34. Retrieved from

Sarat, A. (Ed.). (2014). Civility, legality, and justiuce in America. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Scales, S. (2010). Teaching civility in the age of Jerry Springer. Teaching Ethics, 10, 1-20. doi: 10.5840/tej20101028.

About the Author

Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD, ABPP, is a tenured professor, Emory University School of Medicine, department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences; chief psychologist, Grady Health System; and vice chair, department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. The 2014 president of APA, she is also former president/chair of three APA divisions, the American Board of Professional Psychology and the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC); a former editor of the Journal of Family Psychology; and the chair of the 2002 Competencies Conference. She has received multiple awards, including APA’s Distinguished Contributions for Education and Training Award, the Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Award for inspiring junior colleagues to develop community programs and Grady Health Foundation’s Inspiring Mentor Award. The recipient of multiple grants, she has over 300 publications. She is a member of Rosalynn Carter’s Mental Health Advisory Board, the psychologist for the Atlanta Ballet and a frequent media guest.
Natalie N. Watson, PhD, is an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Spelman College and a faculty fellow in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University. She has been repeatedly recognized as a “Teachers Ranked Excellent by Their Students” throughout her teaching tenure. Watson has mentored undergraduate and graduate students in research methods, clinical skills and leadership development. Undergraduate scholars have also been widely involved in her program of research, which examines the effectiveness of mind-body interventions (e.g., mindfulness meditation) to reduce stress-related outcomes among African-American women. Watson, also a trained mindfulness meditation facilitator, served as a mindfulness meditation facilitator and evaluation consultant for a culturally adapted mindfulness stress-management group intervention for African-American women in Madison, Wisconsin.