What Is Ethical Communication & How to Become a Civil Communicator

By David NaarLast Updated Mar 23, 2021 1:29:19 AM ET
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A quote of unknown origin says, "Be careful with your words. Once they are said, they can only be forgiven, not forgotten." This saying highlights a universal truth: that our words have an impact on anyone who hears or sees them, so it’s important to choose those words carefully. The art of doing so — of choosing words in a way that communicates your concept politely — is what’s known as civil communication.

Effective civil communicators practice ethical communication at work, in school and in their personal lives — any time they need to convey something important through words. Communicating ethically can help accomplish a variety of things, too, whether a communicator needs to pass a class, gain a client or persuade an audience. Learn more about ethical communication, including what it is and how it can benefit you.

What Is Ethical Communication?

Communication is the art of getting a message from one person to another. Ethics is the philosophy of morals, which involves determining what is right and wrong and living by those principles. So what do you get when you combine them? Ethical communication — the practice of delivering messages to other people in a way that abides by principles of right and wrong. This type of communication often takes the form of public speech or written material meant for distribution among others.

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While different settings may necessitate subtle differences in ethical communication, there are overarching principles that define this type of messaging. Ethical communication doesn’t steer a listener or reader in the wrong direction. When words are ethical, they don’t negatively impact the receiver's emotions or actions. Ethical communication fosters implicit trust — trust that the information is accurate. People receiving the communication should also be able to trust that all the information is coming directly from the person or organization communicating it. An ethical communicator readily discloses any conflict of interest, too. A hallmark of ethical communication is a level of professionalism that rules out any speech that’s cruel or that insults other people’s intelligence.

As you might expect, ethical communication is the polar opposite of unethical communication. Communication is unethical when it’s blatantly false or when it skews facts, either to hide something or to create a different (and inaccurate) impression using information that’s being presented. Presenting someone else's ideas as one's own is unethical. It’s unethical when the originator of a message doesn’t explain that they have a conflict of interest that could change the way other people receive the message. Unethical communication doesn’t have to be malicious, but carelessness — perhaps when fact-checking or delivering a message — can lead to unethical communication.

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What Is a Civil Communicator?

An ethical communicator should also be a civil communicator. As the term suggests, a civil communicator is courteous and polite. This is a person who has a clear intent to communicate a message, not to engage in a smear campaign against another person or organization.

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While effective communication may contain a bit of emotion or passion, a civil communicator refrains from becoming so consumed by emotion that those feelings end up distorting the truth of the message. Mean-spiritedness and close-mindedness have no space in civil communication.

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As an example, civil communication is a concept commonly promoted in the realm of co-parenting. Two parents may not be particularly fond of each other, but they put their differences aside and communicate openly and honestly for the common good of all involved, especially their children.

Ethical Communication in the Real World

The purpose of ethical communication in any setting is to make sure that any message you’re communicating is trustworthy and delivered in a manner that doesn’t result in any kind of harm. Ethical communication must be fact-based, and as an ethical communicator you should be concerned with verifying any information you want to communicate to others. Consider the examples below.

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Teachers have the right to assume that anything written in an essay is the student's original thoughts unless there is some sort of citation. Students who do not properly cite other's work are considered plagiarizers. Plagiarism is completely unethical.

People rely on the opinions of influencers on social media to judge products and make purchasing decisions. When an influencer is reviewing a product from a company that has sponsored them, the influencer has a duty to disclose this business relationship. Giving a paid opinion about a product is closer to a commercial than to an honest review, and receiving payment can cause an influencer to give a more favorable (and perhaps biased) review of a product once a payment is involved. This is a conflict of interest, and it needs to be disclosed for the influencer to maintain their credibility.

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Ethical Communication in Business

Ethical communication in business is more than a philosophical duty — it can also be a legal requirement. The public expects businesses to deal honestly with them, and businesses may also be bound by laws dictating how they can communicate certain information to consumers.

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Transparency is a key principle of ethical communication in business. Companies that tell half-truths or fail to disclose important facts to the public often face repercussions. Failing to communicate ethically can also damage a business’ reputation — and, subsequently, its bottom line. Depending on the industry, unethical communications can even be serious violations of the law.

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Intrusive communication is one part of Redding's Typology of Unethical Communication — a classification system developed to help businesses learn to communicate ethically — and is also a growing form of unethical communication in business. Communication is a two-way street. Intrusive communication happens when a member of the public who’s consuming information isn’t made fully aware of how a business expects them to communicate. Take certain websites as an example. To maintain ethical standards, many journalism websites have pop-up cookie policies that disclose how they’ll use any information they collect from site visitors. This gives the visitors proper advanced notice of the communication transaction and makes them fully aware of the intent of the site.

How to Be an Ethical and Civil Communicator

The first step in communicating ethically and civilly is preparing. Because accuracy matters, an ethical communicator needs to find and verify facts. Speaking "off the cuff" can lead to unintentional ethical issues. The audience must be at the center of ethical communication, too; an accurate message that’s too complicated for the audience to understand leaves them just as misinformed as a false message.

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It takes practice to become a civil communicator. A civil communicator must first be a good listener, whether that means listening to someone else's ideas or doing adequate research to understand all of the viewpoints on a topic. Levelheadness and a concerted effort to deliver facts in a way that the listener can understand are also hallmarks of a civil communicator.

Ethical, civil communication is the gold standard in both personal and professional spheres. It requires effort from both the receiver and the giver of any message — but those efforts are worthwhile.

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