The current climate of politics and opinions in the United States is contentious and fractured, to say the least. With a long historical perspective, it has been like this before; there has been wide and deep discord in this country in the past (as just one example, we had a Civil War, after all). Today’s situation has two big differences: the other examples weren’t in our lifetimes, and there wasn’t social media to spread, fuel and extend some of the tension and discord.
This is not a political article at all – I am not writing about my political views or opinions. Rather, I am writing about a leadership, communication and life principle that is important for us to remember in the context of the situation I have described above. My goal here is to help us see how communication can break down so significantly and how we can avoid it in our work and lives.
Over the past few years , I have seen friendships fractured by differing points of view. I have seen, read about and heard of business lost for the same reasons. I have seen more shouting and verbal rage than at any time in my adult life. We’ve all seen the behaviors and the results, from people on both sides of the political aisle:
- Emotional responses
- Rushing to judgement
- Defining groups (Us/them)
Read that list again, and think about it, not in the context of politics, but in the context of the workplace: your organization, your team.
Chances are you have seen many of these things around you – and not just because of the external political environment. Yes, some of the words used above are pretty strong, but I’ve seen most all of these things happening in project teams, work groups, between departments, and between individuals; and I bet you have too.
As a leader, these sorts of responses and behaviors aren’t acceptable – they are counter to the team/organization productively reaching the outcomes required. So, what can we do to find common ground when opinions differ, but progress must be made?
Here are a few suggestions to help reduce the discord and create an environment where real communication can occur, and progress can be made without ravaging the relationships of those involved.
Focus on the big picture. When in the meeting or conversation, try to get initial understanding and agreement about the big picture. What are we trying to accomplish? What final outcome are we interested in? If we can get agreement on the “What”, all parties can refocus the conversation and effort back to that important “What” when the conversation begins to get contentious.
Look for agreement on why. Beyond the importance of “What”, spend time talking about “Why”. When everyone understands the purpose or why something needs to be achieved, we have the foundation for finding common ground.
Most of the problems (both political closer to home) we are talking about here come when people immediately and firmly focus on their proposed how. When we can start with “What” and “Why”, we have a much better place to work from.
Check your assumptions. Going into a meeting or conversation, what are your assumptions about the other person and their views? Do you assume certain things because of their age, or role in the company? Do you assume certain behaviors from those in “accounting” or “marketing” (insert whatever group or division you wish)? Or do you enter the situation with an open mind, assuming no ill or provincial intent? While you should think about this before a meeting or interaction begins, once you have found some agreement on the What and the Why, hopefully the concerns you have related to your incoming assumptions will be further reduced.
Be committed to results, rather than specific solutions. If you can honestly make this statement: “I am committed to us finding results more than getting you to agree with my approach.”; and are willing in one way or another to share this with the other person or group, you have taken a big step towards common ground. And if you can do that, you will naturally . . .
Be curious. Being curious is about being open minded, but more than that it is about seeking better solutions. When you are truly open and curious, it will lead you to . . .
Ask more and assert less. This behavior can have a huge impact on your results. Ask more questions. Learn more about the other options and opinions, understand their perspective further. Not only does this begin to create a different environment for collaboration and common ground, when you do this, others are (far) more likely to do the same.
Listen. Need I say more here? You won’t find common ground while you are talking.
Look for common ground. To find common ground, look for it. If you have lost something, you look for it; you don’t expect to find it without looking. When you do all the other suggestions here, and are earnestly looking for common ground, you are much more likely to find it.
All these points will help you as an individual. As a leader, these suggestions will help you and provide a road map for coaching others when in challenging communication situations and conflicts.
A final thought. One fundamental reason so many have had unsatisfying conversations/arguments about political topics is the same reason for conflicts at work. That fundamental issue is emotion.
Emotion is an important part of what makes us human. But emotions showing up as anger, frustration and even resentment get in the way of a conversation that can lead in a productive direction. When we use the suggestions above, we improve the chances that emotion doesn’t get in the way of progress.
I hope these ideas, whether new or reminders, will help you and your team create more positive productive conversations, so that your organizations can achieve what you were created to achieve.