January 2016 Bar Bulletin
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January 2016 Bar Bulletin

Civility: Life Lessons in Tuscany

By Karen Murray


On October 12, I arrived in Sovana, Italy, to commence an eight-day continuing legal education class on civility: “The Civility Promise in Italy: Experience Consciousness, Creativity, and Community.” There were about 40 others on the same journey, including 21 other attorneys from the U.S. Little did I foresee what life lessons we would come away with, being the skeptical lawyers that I perceived us all to be.

Why go all the way to Italy to learn about civility? After several months to reflect upon what I took away from the seminar and the 10 relaxing days I stayed in the beautiful countryside of Tuscany, I fully realize that the civility promise could not have happened at home. It was crucial to travel elsewhere to immerse ourselves in the conversation of civility without any distractions so we could begin our exploration into the civility promise of consciousness.

The Civility Promise
of Consciousness

The three-minute walk along the cobblestone street from the Sovana Resort, where I was staying, to the Scilla Hotel, where the CLE would take place, gave me enough time to think about how lucky I was to be in this medieval village that was made up of only two streets. When I heard the local people shout out, “Buongiorno!” as I walked past their homes and businesses, I immediately felt I was welcome and that I somehow belonged there.

Later, as I conversed with my fellows and heard from them why they had chosen to journey to Tuscany to learn about civility, and then heard from the faculty about their goals and expectations for us during the upcoming week, I sensed this CLE was going to be like none other.

After the initial welcome, the faculty immediately outlined five specific goals for the seminar: 1) foster civil behavior in our personal and professional lives; 2) examine factors that lead to incivility; 3) identify consequences of incivility and benefits of civility; 4) construct a tool kit to increase our own civility; and 5) develop skills to promote civility throughout the community.

To accomplish these goals, the faculty made it abundantly clear that we needed to unplug, or at the very least silence, our technical devices until the class sessions were over. As we began turning off or silencing cellphones, iPads and laptops, we heard a bell ring in the distance. One of the faculty asked us to stop what we were doing and remain silent until the bell stopped ringing.

When the bell stopped ringing, we learned of the ritual of Plum Village — a Buddhist meditation retreat center in France. Whenever the town square bell rings, everyone stops what they are doing to pause and reflect on the moment. Not until the ringing stopped would they continue with their day. We were asked to do the same during our stay. During the time we spent together, even if we chose to follow no other rules, this was the must-do. So began our introduction of experiencing consciousness by being in the moment.

In our profession, we must react to information coming our way, whether answering our opponents, interviewing witnesses or responding to judges. We may find ourselves only half listening while trying to think of a reply. Consequently, vital information may be lost or we may not even be going down the same path as the person asking the question. Our response may be totally inappropriate and cost us dearly in the long run.

We were being taught, without knowing it, that by not being conscious of what is happening at the moment or around us can cost us emotionally and monetarily, as well as in relationships. Being conscious simply means, “Peace, be still.” The life lesson of civility is that by remaining silent one can learn so much by just listening and observing. We also learned that by experiencing consciousness we would find that nonverbal interactions play a vital role in explaining situations and how others are truly feeling, which often plays a key role in whether we are civil to one another.

At the end of the first day we were told to define “civility.” My working definition, which would change significantly by the end of the course, was: “To simply have good manners: be polite (e.g., say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’), be respectful, and remain silent when others are talking.”

The Civility Promise
of Creativity

During the eight days that we were in session, we were engaged in several art projects. None of us knew why we were painting or what making art had to do with the question of civility in our profession. But with the assistance of a local artist, the purpose of this exercise later became abundantly clear.

The entire group gathered around a blank canvas that was spread over seven banquet-sized tables, with paint brushes and water colors of every shade placed along the entire length. The Italian artist spoke and demonstrated to us simultaneously how important it is to just do it and just go with the flow, as he effortlessly made endless strokes into something quite beautiful. Surprisingly, we listened, understood and we began to make art. Not the most brilliant art, but art nonetheless.

We discovered that it’s okay if we’re not always in control, and that sometimes by letting go everything will work out for the best. We also learned that by freely joining in and working on a project with a group of strangers, you grow to be more familiar and more intimate with the person you’re working with.

This builds both a natural curiosity to learn more about those you’ve been working so closely beside and a foundation of trust that later supports a community where individuals feel safe in sharing ideas and being listened to without criticism. The civility promise of creativity was a life lesson in freedom of expression.

The Civility Promise
of Community

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