How to Find Middle Ground at Work When There are Conflicting Views
They say that religion and politics are the two most polarizing topics of conversation. Indeed, they are at the top of everyone’s list of what not to bring up at both family dinners and in the workplace. And now, we have just gone through one of the most divisive elections in history, which has pitted us against one another on topics including school education and domestic manufacturing (once again, leaving “Game of Thrones” as the only unifying subject left to discuss).
This current state of heightened sensitivity has made it even harder to connect with people. After all, there is only so much you can say about weather and traffic. So, given all the tension that surrounds our opinions and the current state of events, many of us are wondering how we can have healthy conversations, even disagreements, without alienating our audiences and losing our Facebook friends. And how we can communicate at work and maintain partnerships even amidst times of conflict.
The answer lies in one word: RESPECT.
Somewhere in our transition from dialogue and verbal conversations to texting and social posts, we lost our ability to respect one another. We found safety in our keyboards and touchscreens because they let us express our opinions anonymously.
But the reality is that we are better as a society, as a company, and as a country if we have diverse points of view. The trick is expressing them in ways that strengthen our connections rather than breaking them down. We seem to have lost our ability to debate and challenge one another, to listen and empathize. Instead, we become combative and dismissive. The more someone disagrees with us, the more we defend our own points of view. As a result, we often feel that we are not being heard.
During leadership and management training sessions, one of the first things you learn is how to observe, listen, and communicate effectively in order to avoid and resolve conflict. You learn how to maintain eye contact, how to actively show interest, and how to share your understanding of a situation in a way that includes all participants and validates their points of view. It’s not about agreeing with others; it is about actually hearing what they are saying.
In a scene from the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” one of the characters was asked why he would walk only along the edges of a carpet, rather than across the room. He responded that he didn’t want to wear the carpet out. While we may not agree with his seemingly bizarre behavior, hearing his rationale helps us to understand why he does it.
How can we apply this scenario to our everyday lives? Here are some tips:
- Don’t presume that you know the right answer. Too often, the root of disagreement and discontent is the assumption that you know the right answer or have the right opinion before you get all the facts or hear the different sides. Situations change, and while it may be okay to have some initial thoughts, be sure to seek more information before you engage in conversation. A good general practice is to watch different news channels and read various news sources. This will condition you to see things from different angles and to obtain information from different resources. For example, one source may report that unemployment is at an all-time high of 7%, while another may focus on the fact that the employment rate is 93%. Both sources are reporting the truth, but are presenting it in different ways.
- Seek out the opinions of people with whom you disagree. Surrounding yourself with like- minded people all of the time won’t give you opportunities to hear other perspectives. Get into the habit of proactively asking the people you trust why they think a certain way on a certain topic, and challenge yourself to understand their vantage point.
- Assume best intentions. It’s easy to react before fully accessing a situation, but if you assume that someone has best intentions in mind and take the time to understand his or her motivations before making a judgment, it will prevent misunderstandings and strengthen your professional partnerships.
- Find agreement. The first rule of negotiating is to find common ground. It’s not that difficult if you remember that people often want the same things, even if they differ on how to get them. When you share a common vision, you can focus on building alignment rather than wasting energy on disagreeing about the details. Find out what the other person wants to accomplish, then align your vision with his or hers, if possible. For example, if you and a colleague are planning to take a business trip together, discuss what mode of transportation each of you prefers and why. Then make a plan that finds middle ground.
- Ask questions; don’t make statements. Before you decide upon a definitive course of action, ask the others involved for their ideas. The best way to do this is to phrase your thoughts as questions rather than statements. For example, instead of saying, “We need to implement a sales training program that drives higher average-order values by channeling customers to higher-priced items,” ask “How can we get customers to buy more items or more expensive items to drive higher sales?” While the results may be the same, asking others for their ideas may lead to new ways of achieving them.
Diversity is critical to progress. If everyone agreed on everything, we would never move forward. It takes different thoughts and ideas to expand our horizons. Certainly, no one wants to be in constant disagreement, but it is important to know how to deal with varying points of view in a way that leads to personal growth and fosters a strong team. Conflict, overall, is healthy and positive–but only if you know how to manage it.14