Episode 354: Civility Rules that Lift, Build, and Inspire with Shelby Scarbrough

Episode Summary

In this episode, we delve into Shelby’s unique view of civility, the oxymoron political civility has become these days, and the role civility plays in turning society more civil. Shelby gave away some golden nuggets from her book, suggested new ways of encouraging constructive discussions, and highlighted the crucial role of promoting the plurality of voices in every political debate.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. We have a very special guest with us today. Her experiences in both public service and the private sector have given her a unique insight into the practices that lead and lead to positive relationships and productive communication between individuals, countries, and societies. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is a speaker, entrepreneur, and writer. She is the author of Civility Rules! Creating A Purposeful Practice of Civility. So, welcome, Shelby Scarbrough. 

Shelby Scarbrough: Thank you so much. I love that enthusiasm and the emphasis on “civility rules.” It’s perfect. That’s how I meant it to be. 

Steve Shallenberger: We’re in the last election season right now and we’ve just gone through the last two-year cycle and we have another two-year cycle coming up, it’s going to be big with the presidential election coming up. So this subject of civility is huge and it’s been a sad state of affairs here for the last few years. So, I, for one, am looking forward to our visit today.  

Shelby Scarbrough: Thank you, me too.  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, now before we get started, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Shelby. She began her career in the White House as a member of President Ronald Reagan’s advance team, where she helped coordinate such landmark events as the Reagan-Gorbachev Moscow Summit. She then served as a protocol officer in the U.S. Department of State. In 1990, Shelby founded Practical Protocol, LLC, a company that plans bespoke events for foreign dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, and Lech Walesa. I mean, a whole group of people. So, Shelby is all over it. I’ve been looking forward to this interview today. 

Shelby Scarbrough: Same here. Thank you so much.  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, to get going, Shelby, tell us about your background, especially including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you than even what you’re doing today. 

Shelby Scarbrough: I started out making hamburgers — how’s that for an auspicious beginning? Really fancy. My parents went into the restaurant industry and began building Burger Kings when I was about 15 years old. So, my very first job was in the kitchen of a Burger King, actually, everything from sweeping the floors to making the drinks to being an order taker to making the food. And eventually, through college, I would come home every summer and take management courses and learn about managing the people, managing the restaurant, and managing the business aspect of it, and always able to take apart the shake machine and put it back together. So, you kind of had to be a jack of all trades in that kind of business. That was probably my first, I would call, turning point — introduction to entrepreneurship, introduction to managing people, and interactions with people. It was invaluable to me. My parents, I don’t know if it was by design, I think they were looking for opportunities to build a legacy and to build something that everybody could be engaged with together. But I’d also really formed a lot of my basic fundamental values of hard work, personal responsibility, and looking at what the customer needs, and taking care of the customer. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, fantastic. What a background. 

Shelby Scarbrough: That was just the beginning. It was fun. 

Steve Shallenberger: And I love the fact that you’re part of the advanced team for some of those Reagan Gorbachev meetings or other historic things. So, what was that like for you, and what were some things that impressed you that you remember from that time? Because it’s so historic for what happened. 

Shelby Scarbrough: I was very lucky to be a part of the Reagan administration in the second term. That was, as you said, a very historic presidency term, lots of interesting things happened, and I got to travel around the world with the president and a team of people. I was part of a team, which is a great concept to understand to learn how to work as a team. But the idea that perfection was the goal is hard. The White House is a place where there’s not a lot of room for error — one person’s small mistake can get magnified in a big way very quickly. So we all had to play our part to pay attention to the details and to try to be as professional, specific, and accurate as possible. And I would say, I had my comeuppance in that because I was right out of college and this was my first job. So not only was I just learning about my first job aside from Burger King, I should say, my first professional job out of college working for somebody other than my parents. I had the right skill sets, I have the right attitude, but I had to learn some of the details of that job that put the basis of professionalism in my work that I hope that I carry through to today. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, I think that’s the perfect preparation for the White House’s tutor at Burger King. 

Shelby Scarbrough: What I always say is, the Burger King to the Queen of England, it’s all the same to me. It’s all about customer service, paying attention to the needs of the customer, putting our ego aside, doing what’s right, and getting the job done efficiently and pleasantly, etc. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, there are a lot of lessons just in there, aren’t there? 

Shelby Scarbrough: For me, there were.  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, for me, too. Well, let’s just jump into this, Shelby, why should society care about what George Washington had to say about civility? 

Shelby Scarbrough: He gets maligned a lot these days in the public discourse. And I think he has a lot of valuable things that he put out there in the world. We can talk a lot about his whole history, but where I focused was, when he was 16, he wrote the Rules of Civility by transcribing a French etiquette book. It was a book meant to train nobles in French diplomatic and Royal Society, to be of the right stature, have the right manners, et cetera. It’s a funny book, it’s written in older English than we know now. One of my favorites, I always quote is, “Thou shalt not stand so close so as to bedew a man with one’s spittle.” So, if you think about that, basically, it’s “keep your distance so that you don’t put germs all over the other person.” And that’s a very interesting concept these days within post COVID era. It sounds funny then, but if we say, “Look, we’ve got to give people some space,” and recognize that everybody has a little space bubble between them. In Western society is usually about three feet. But now with COVID, it’s gotten a little bigger, it’s got six feet, and then now it’s coming back. But the idea that an old like that actually goes back to the 1400s has relevance today is what I was looking at. So I took those rules, and I relooked at them for that what they really are trying to get across to people, and I bucketed them. They all came together in a bucket of five or six things like humility, dignity, respect, trust, courtesy, and honor, those kinds of concepts. And that’s what I then flipped the switch on the title instead of saying “The Rules of Civility.” I don’t believe that we have to live by rules; I think that civility should rule. So that’s why I called my book Civility Rules. And it’s a practice and it’s the basis of what George Washington said, but just revisited.  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, he was such an inspiration, wasn’t he?  

Shelby Scarbrough: He was, and he lived by a lot of his rules; with honor, respect, and dignity. He would walk with his troops at Valley Forge. He’s very famous for walking in the winter and making sure they were all taken care of. He wasn’t an easy leader, he had a temper. But he also tried to temper that with kind works and good things for all of his people. And in the end, he released his slaves and all of those kinds of things. So, there is a lot of depth and things to talk about George Washington. 

Steve Shallenberger: I’m glad you brought him up. What an inspiration. What role does personal responsibility play in becoming more civil in our society? 

Shelby Scarbrough: To me, it’s everything. It’s the umbrella that encompasses all of the other things that I just mentioned: dignity, respect, honor, trust, courtesy, and humility. Personal responsibility is really at the heart of it. So, as I said, an umbrella — you can see that covering everything because the bottom line is we can’t change somebody else, we can’t change them, we just can’t force change on somebody else, we can’t make somebody change. We can help change happen by having our behavior be the way we think, showing up in the world the way we feel that the world needs to be. And if we believe in civility, which I do, then that’s having a practice of civility and personally taking responsibility for my own actions. We tend to point fingers at other people. One of the first questions that I often get about civility is “That person is so uncivil, how do I talk to them?” Well, you just behave in a way, it’s very simple. There are some specifics, but you behave in a way that you would want them to behave. So, it’s just modeling behavior in its purest form, and taking responsibility for our own actions rather than pointing the finger at someone else. 

Steve Shallenberger: You’ve been talking about some really noble qualities and they’re so important. Some people may have lost sight of them in today’s world. Dignity, respect, honor, courtesy, trust, humility, and personal responsibility. How does a person incorporate this kind of civil behavior into daily practice? 

Shelby Scarbrough: There are a lot of simple tools that we can revert to that are great from a communication standpoint that you might learn in a communications course, like listening to learn and learning to listen. So often, we’re trying to wait till we respond with our opinions or our views, rather than listening to what somebody has to say, thinking about that and responding to that appropriately and with dignity — just letting the other person keep their dignity. Why do we need to tear someone down or make them feel stupid if they have a view different than ours? So, we often shame people with “how can you think that” kind of statements but I don’t find those to be necessary. Now, we’re all human, and sometimes it just slips out before we have a chance to control our responses. So, thinking before we speak is another great example of how to work in the practice of civility. We also talk about some challenges that we have. In an organization that I belong to called The Entrepreneurs Organization, we have a very specific protocol of how we speak to one another: We don’t give advice. So, that would be the same in another way of looking at it is, your opinion isn’t worth very much — it’s free. My father always says, “Your opinion is worth as much as you pay for it,” or advice is worth as much as you pay for it. So, if we were to share experiences and say, “Well, in my experience, this is what happened to me or what I’ve experienced, and this is, therefore, why I think the way I think.” That’s a lot less confrontational than saying, “You’re an idiot and you should think the way I think.” “What you’re thinking is evil, what you’re thinking is dumb, what you’re thinking is dangerous.” Those kinds of words are just inflammatory and really not necessary in 99% of the communications that we have. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, Shelby, I’m going to ask a tough question here. I know you think about this, and this is why I’m asking you this question. It seems like, one on one, people can be pretty decent when the stakes, there is not a lot of high emotion. But when you start getting into a group thing or it becomes personal, like on the internet, people start losing rational thinking. And yet, we all seem to agree, maybe we don’t, that we ought to be civil. The question is how do we move that way? How do we take this thought that people say, “Yeah, I agree, we ought to be civil.” But then you say, “Well, hold on, I’m a Democrat and you’re Republican,” and all of a sudden, people can start becoming pretty uncivil quick. We happen to have in our community right now on the ballot, a school district issue, which is quite controversial, and I’ve seen really rough feelings and stuff come out. How do we do this? How do we create this way? What are the best ways to create a culture of this? 

Shelby Scarbrough: Again, it has to start with us and our value system of wanting to achieve this. And if you’re in a discussion with somebody who you know doesn’t agree with you, then it’s taking the lead on saying, “Tell me more. Tell me something about why you believe the way you believe.” Let’s say, take this school issue and say, “Well, let’s dig into it a little bit. Instead of trying to come to the conclusion and pressuring somebody to say, “You should vote this way or that way.” Let’s just have a bigger discussion about it — a wider, broader, more open, and accepting discussion. We can’t control the other person, they may not be willing to do that. But there are some communication techniques that you can do to steer that person into being more open and into stopping confrontationally. We live in a society, civil society is about being in this together. And while I cherish and believe fundamentally in the premise of American culture of individual rights and freedom, that’s at the core of all this for me is I don’t want to give those up. But in order to not give those up, I really firmly believe we need to take a big step into communication with each other so that we can keep our democracy, so we can accept other voices in the room. And I always sometimes very openly start with that premise and say, “Look, I may say things that you don’t agree with but I’d like to have a conversation with you because I believe more voices in the room is better for democracy and it’s better for our freedoms and our individual rights if we have the ability to communicate with each other openly and not slam the door shut on on our ability to interact. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s a great answer, I had a friend one time share with me this thought. He said, “Never overestimate your importance, and never underestimate your influence.” I guess we should not underestimate the influence of one person that chooses to be civil. 

Shelby Scarbrough: I hope so. It is a premise that I’m putting out there in the world and hoping, like Gandhi, to be the change that I wish to see in the world and trying to live it. It’s not always easy. Every once in a while you run into that person. I mean, just the simple daily things. People cut us off in the parking lot or on the road and I have to sit back and say, “They must have had something really important, or maybe they didn’t notice me, or they’re having a bad day.” These are insignificant things that I don’t need to get upset about. And it goes back to also about joy. My middle name is Joy, so I have this concept that joy and civility are two sides of the same coin. Without civility, it’s hard to be joyful, because grumpy people don’t make the world a happy place. And without joy, it’s hard to be civil. Without one, you don’t have the other; they go back and forth; they feed on each other. So, the more joy we can find in the world, the better off and more easy it is to be civil with people. Because the more patient we are, the more rested, the more kind, the happier we are, then there’s not a whole lot of reason to pick a fight if you want to stay in that state. There are people who seem to want to be miserable for some reason, and I’m afraid I don’t understand them but I do understand that that is the case. So I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, even if it takes every bit of my patients to do that.  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, you’d be that great influence because I know that you’re not going to underestimate it. It’s a big deal. It’s much greater than many of us realize. So why should people pursue and practice civility as a philosophy? You’ve been talking about this, and maybe you’ve already addressed it, on living and having it become an active part of positive change in some civilization. 

Shelby Scarbrough: So, when I talked about civil society, I go back to saying that we are all part of a larger hole. And in order to have a place in this world where we function well together and the things that we all want to see achieved in this world can happen, it can’t really happen in a chaotic and discord. So we need to find a way to come together and find a common space—common bonds, commonalities, common interests—and that’s a good starting point. So, why should we do it? I mean, the bottom line is because life is happier, better, and more joyful for everybody if the more civil we are. But that’s also not about not saying the hard things, not having the hard conversations; it’s about getting us in a place where we can have those hard conversations and it doesn’t get shut down by emotion, but it’s opened up by intellect and emotional intelligence. 

Steve Shallenberger: How can you have a hard conversation and be civil? 

Shelby Scarbrough: I think I’ve done it a few times. There are places where I’ve had to say things to people that this is not okay, this behavior is not okay — simple communication skills of addressing behavior and not personality: “This behavior is not okay with me. I find this to be hard to handle and to have a conversation with you that is productive, and I want to have that conversation that is productive. I value your friendship,” or I value the relationship. Somebody asked a question on a forum like a discussion group: “When somebody gets in my face about something or I don’t like what they’re doing, how do I do this?” Well, there are two questions. The premises — how much does the relationship matter to you? And if the relationship doesn’t matter to you, then why bother? Now, I’m not saying that we should all just have short-term thinking as far as relationships, just to say, “Well, I don’t care about this person.” But in general, if it’s a passing thing, like the person who cut you off in the line at the store or something. In the big picture, what does it matter? So why bother? Why go there? What do you think you’re going to teach that person? It’s not our place to teach somebody else; it’s our place to be who we are and show up the way we’re supposed to show up in this world. And if somebody doesn’t uphold that, that’s not my challenge. And the second part of it is if the relationship matters, then it’s worth talking to them civilly because why have a horrible discussion if you can help it? And we all have people in our lives where it’s hard to talk to because it’s emotionally fraught with landmines for lots of reasons, but I’m not giving up on trying to get over some of those hurdles and find that happy place. 

Steve Shallenberger: Do you say it just like that? Shall we just say, “I’m not comfortable with this behavior?” Or do you say, “Thanks for sharing, but I just appreciate this kind of approach and think we can get to a better place?”  

Shelby Scarbrough: A really good friend of mine, we were having dinner one time, and she was surprised at my view on something when she asked me, and I said, “Well, absolutely, I believe this.” And she said, “Oh, well, we can’t talk about this then.” I said, “No, absolutely, we should. I’m not afraid to talk about this. I don’t want you to be afraid to talk about this. For me, it’s not going to challenge our relationship if we have a different political view. It’s okay, I want to hear your view. I didn’t say I want you to hear mine. But I said I’m okay with hearing something that I don’t agree with, and I can talk about it and we should be able to.” And she came back and we went on to talk about lots of things. But I think that she was getting uncomfortable because it was bringing emotion up into her belly — you know how you feel that that temperature rising when you get kind of like, “Oh my gosh!” I get that too, and everybody gets that. But the more I can control that part of my emotion and be centered on literally how my body is feeling; am I feeling angst? Am I angry? What is it that I’m feeling? And try to get in touch with that and take a deep breath and not have to respond right away. And even to be honest with that and say, “I’m feeling lots of things right now and I just need to process this for a minute.” People can understand that kind of stuff. But in my experience, people don’t respond well to being attacked because the first thing they want to do is defend themselves. And we talk about people being defensive and how do you stop that. Well, somebody who’s defensive usually felt attacked. So, where did that start? So, maybe it starts with us, with me, and not saying things that might put people in a position of feeling attacked. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, good response. I like that. So, I was just thinking about this, and this is coming through in your comments, Shelby, loud and clear, which is so much of being successful in creating a climate that is more tolerant, more celebratory is our mindset about other people. In other words, if you have a mindset that “You know what? I don’t know everything and I really do want to see the other person’s point of view.” If you have a mindset like that is really helpful because otherwise, you’re just being patient until they quit talking. So, if you can say, “You know what? I don’t know everything,” that gets back to your comment of humility, and “You know what? I’m really curious to see what you think about that. That would be helpful for me. I’d like to see your point of view.” Maybe it puts the other person at ease a little bit. 

Shelby Scarbrough: “Tell me your experience around that. You obviously feel very strongly. Has something been going on in your life? Or have you seen examples of this that you can share because I’d love to hear about them. It makes it more real for me, and maybe I can understand that better.” And the humility aspect is that we need to have enough self-esteem that we can stand up for ourselves and not just be an amoeba. It’s not a zero to 100. It’s more like the equilibrium in the middle where we have enough balance of ego in our lives, where we have the ability to say, “I’m capable of thinking, feeling, and all of that. And I’ve done some homework and I have some views on this world.” But also, there’s plenty to learn. And that old phrase of “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” is a great one to keep in mind. To me, that’s the essence of humility right there. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, we were just talking about just coming up to the end of an election cycle. Many people are worn out a little bit, and then we know we’re going right to another one. The one thing many Americans are united on is how divided we seem to be as a nation. How do we avoid hostility and incivility from becoming the new norm? 

Shelby Scarbrough: The first thing that came to mind when you said that is parents. Parents are very powerful in their children’s lives and should be. I just did something that I don’t like to do, which is I just “should” on you. I don’t like the word “should,” it’s one of those things. I’d like other people to adopt the “I should” but not “you should” because, again, who likes to be told what to do? But it seems to me that empowering parents to teach their children well about treating other people with dignity and respect. We teach them a lot about respecting themselves these days, and I understand and agree with that. But it seems to have been tipped over a little bit into “I should be respected by everybody” instead of self-respect, which is a slightly different and more nuanced feature. So, teaching children to feel good about themselves and who they are, no matter what they were born with, no matter whether they were born like me with bad vision and thick eyeglasses, and if you need braces, or whatever it happens to be the things that get in kids way that help teach them self esteem and self-respect — not to demand respect from others, but to earn it. So, that’s a really good place to start. I’ve often thought that we need to have more debate clubs in this country again, that would be a really great way of getting young people to understand how to communicate and to take the other position because in debate clubs, you often have to do the preparation to do the defense of the point of view that you might not actually hold, which is a great tool to getting into the empathic and compassionate side of things to understand how to — I don’t use the word “argue,” it’s not a good one, but that’s essentially what it is, is to debate those kinds of issues and come out shaking hands at the end. We just have to want to. The ones who come to me and say, “It’s all about them, and they are the ones who are uncivil” is not taking personal responsibility. And from a political standpoint, it’s coming from both sides. I’ve been watching us quite a bit so if a person is on the left or a person is on the right because we tend to go into our corners, we probably think the other side is the more uncivil. But I’ve been really watching this and both sides have their challenges with civility. And it goes to name calling, it goes to bringing another person down, and the policy of personal division and personal politics of putting somebody down for who they are instead of what their ideas are about. 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, this is all about “There’s a better way to do it.” 

Shelby Scarbrough: Yes, I wrote a chapter for a book called The Power of Civility, which is how this whole journey got started as far as writing for me. And one of the challenges that I found in doing my research, my chapter was on political civility, and what I realized is, sadly, it’s kind of an oxymoron that there’s really no such thing as political civility. And in a way, there never has been. It just seems to be super exacerbated these days because hate travels so much faster than love on the internet. The bad gossip in the town always got around a lot faster than the good news, even when we didn’t have telephones or the internet. But now it’s at lightning speed, so it can really be a dagger, if you think of a lightning bolt, to somebody. It can really be a challenge. And when I think of things like the incivility in the relationships between teams online with cyberbullying, and that is really dangerous stuff. And anything we can do to get a hold of that is a good thing. 

Steve Shallenberger: And I think, as I’ve just been thinking about our visit today with Shelby, that the stakes are so high, my friends, our listeners. The stakes, really for the ability to collaborate in a way that makes our country better, the best that can be, it’s so hard in such an adversarial environment. And part of the words that I was just thinking of when Sheldon just talked about this last part here is when we think of civility, maybe we ought to be thinking of love as well. Because if you think of love, it helps you think in a bigger way, a more generous way. And maybe the thought of being linked together doesn’t mean we have to agree, we certainly ought to value different points of view. But if we can love others and be civil, it helps us. The whole purpose is to get to a better place, to have a more successful community, state, and country, and to be able to solve problems internationally. Look what’s going on in the world, so there’s such a big need for this. And so appreciate your comments today, Shelby. It starts with me, and a commitment for us to do it, and hopefully, others will see that example and it goes out and they feel the love and civility. Any final comments or tips before we wrap up today? 

Shelby Scarbrough: If your listeners want to take on their own personal practice of civility, I would highly encourage it. It’s a really lovely way to live life. It’s also a challenge especially if you’re vocal about it, and just like you might have accountability partners to say, “I’m on a diet,” to keep yourself accountable. By stating that you are working on a practice of civility, it’s an interesting conversation then that it brings up. And I just say this purely from my own experience that, obviously, people know that I wrote this book, so when we have these conversations, people are very careful to be civil — it’s very interesting because they know that I’ve written this. So, if they know you’re on this journey of civility, they also tend to step up and have their best foot forward, which I don’t find to be terrible. I want authentic conversations but also they start with civil conversations. So, it’s kind of fun, but it’s also a way to keep yourself accountable because, boy, I know that I have to watch everything I do and say because if I put myself out there as this person who believes in civility, imperfect though I may be, I’m certainly putting it out there for criticism. So, both of those things take commitment. But honestly, it’s been a great journey, and I would encourage anybody who wants to see more civility in the world to take it on. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, thank you so much, Shelby, for being with us. Now, this is the author of Civility Rules. What a book. I can’t wait to read that book. How can people find out about what you’re doing, Shelby? And where can they find out about your book? 

Shelby Scarbrough: It’s on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You can also get it through my website, which is We’ve got lots of fun stuff there about civility and joy. And I’ve got an eCommerce site around joy, so if you want to bring joy into your world to counterbalance the incivility, yes, we can do that personally and in our behavior, but you can also have a mug that says “Joy journey” and all sorts of fun other things that set the tone for yourself to remind us all the time of what we’re shooting for. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, it’s a great middle name. Good job. 

Shelby Scarbrough: Thank you very much. My parents, I’m glad they gave it to me.  

Steve Shallenberger: We loved having Shelby on this show today. We wish you all the best, Shelby. 

Shelby Scarbrough: Thank you, likewise, my pleasure.  

Steve Shallenberger: And to our listeners, it’s always a privilege to have you here. From the bottom of our hearts, we’re so grateful for your interest and for your desire of just working on becoming your best. And we wish you the best today and always. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best
CEO, executive, corporate trainer, and community leader.

Shelby Scarbrough

Speaker, Entrepreneur, and Author

Serial Entrepreneur, Founder, Entrepreneurs’ Organization, Freedoms Foundation

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