When it comes to charged issues, how do we disagree constructively rather than poorly, both in and out of the workplace?
In our work at Resetting the Table, my colleague Dr. Eyal Rabinovitch and I aim to transform dominant norms of communication among American Jews from avoidance toward collaboration on the highly charged issue of Israel. We help the American Jewish community to talk, study, and deliberate together across passionate differences in background and views. Drawing from fields of mediation, therapy, and group facilitation, we’ve crafted a core set of processes and training over the last decade that support parties to investigate their differences and speak to the heart of what matters to them with clarity, focus and depth, and without degenerating or escalating out of control.
At Resetting the Table, we support people to slow down conversations and take the time and effort required to listen in a different way. Workplace tensions can feel as heated as profound political disagreements. We offer the following guiding principles of communication when such flare-ups – whether subtle or acute – do arise.
Disagreeing constructively means turning standard debate norms on their head. Rather than listening to find flaws, we listen to find what’s most meaningful to others, even going so far as to help them articulate themselves with greater clarity and power. When you demonstrate that you have both the desire and willingness to understand the other, you maximize the likelihood that they will listen to you in return. You also ensure that you speak directly to what is important to them, rather than talking past each other. We offer here two key components and guiding principles to reach this level of trust and understanding: “following meaning” and “demonstrating understanding.”
“Following meaning” means identifying what we hear is most alive and important to others and asking the questions necessary to understand those things in full. To do this, we train parties to listen for signposts of greatest meaning as others speak.
Such signposts may include: emotions, metaphors, statements of identity (e.g. “I’ve been an X since…” “That’s just not who I am” or “I come from an X background”), words that parties repeat over and over again, statements of uncertainty and confusion, voice inflection and body language (e.g. voice getting louder or softer, changing patterns of eye contact, leaning forward or backward in chair).
Look and listen for such signals and invite the other to elaborate on them. Try, “It sounded like ____ is really important to you. Can you say more about that?” “When you said ____, what did you mean?” “This clearly bothers you. Can you explain why?” It’s important to ask these questions in a curious and non-judgmental tone to avoid shutting the other person down.
In our workshops and facilitation training, one of our first – and hardest – steps is to get people out of the reflex to place others on the witness stand and pose leading or rhetorical questions. When you notice yourself starting with phrases like, “Don’t you think that…” “Isn’t it true that…”“Have you ever considered…”, or “Yeah, but…”, you’re likely coming from the intention of winning an argument instead of seeking understanding.
Once you’ve followed the meaning of others and know how they see things, you must take the time to demonstrate to others that they’ve been heard as they intended. Articulating the core of what someone has said generally has a powerful effect. It cuts against people’s expectations that we aren’t really listening or simply wish to prove them wrong. They no longer feel under attack and are much more likely to welcome our response, even if it is a challenge or disagreement.
Mirroring or reflecting is an approach in which you demonstrate that you have succeeded in understanding other parties by repeating or paraphrasing what seems to matter most to them in what they’ve said. A good reflection will make parties feel like you “get it,” regardless of whether you agree with them; you understand them as they see themselves and wish to be understood.
For example, “What I hear you saying is, we have to act now. We don’t have to do things perfectly, but we must seize this moment as it may not come again.”
Mirroring and reflecting often get a bad rap because people do them in ways that don’t get to the core of what matters to others. When you merely parrot (e.g. “It sounds like you’re upset”), it can come across as not only hollow, but condescending, stiff and insincere, particularly in a charged moment.
For example, if a person speaks primarily analytically it’s important not to reflect them emotively (e.g. “you sound disappointed” after they’ve shared with you four reasons the company should have made a different decision). Try to reflect people with the intensity with which they’ve spoken without minimizing or softening. Try to step into their lens, without projecting your own assumptions. When done well, the other party becomes animated, thankful, and eager to share more.
Employing these approaches means disciplining yourself to postpone expressing your own judgments and views, whether you agree or disagree with what’s been said. If you first take the time to learn in an authentic way who the other party is – what they care about and why – you will maximize the likelihood that they will be receptive to listen and take in what you have to say as well, even in the face of heated disagreement.
Powerful differences may remain and continue to be debated with passion. But the outcome is usually a far more satisfying and substantive conversation, including mutual learning, self-reflection, and excitement to engage rather than the frustration or alienation that generally pervade moments of conflict.
Have you shied away from a difficult conversation at work? Have you experienced a workplace disagreement that escalated or went poorly? Share your experiences below.