“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I wonder what Abraham Lincoln, who borrowed this Biblical quote for his speech in 1858, would think of how divided his house become. Name the issue—mask wearing, distance learning, public gathering, businesses re-opening—and the civil discourse has lost its civility. Don’t even start a conversation about the presidential race, immigration, or reproductive rights. America has dealt with such issues before, but rather than divide us, they united us in a common cause. Of course, it was a lot easier to get people to make sacrifices when we face a shared enemy. Today, we lack a distinct them to make us us. Also, decades ago we didn’t have social media, broadcasting our every thought to the world. Things were a lot easier when you didn’t know who your co-worker voted for. You could go about your day assuming they were nice, intelligent people.
I have worked with organizations that tried to decrease tension in the workplace by instituted rules about which subjects were off-limits for discussion. This never works. That practice doesn’t teach people to play nice in the sandbox, it removes the sandbox; leaving behind resentment. Guiding teams through hot-button issues takes a leader who understands what triggers to avoid, and which practices foster respect.
The first thing to recognize is that people who have firmly held beliefs rarely change their minds. When confirmation bias sets in, we only accept evidence that supports our case. Don’t blame yourself for not getting through to the other person, or blame them for being stubborn. Just recognize this most human of frailties and move on. If confirmation bias has not set in, there may be a chance for productive dialogue. Let’s start with what to avoid:
Don’t Spout facts
When you trade statistics back and forth, you are essentially saying, “I am smarter than you.” This only causes them to dig their heels in further.
The “Don’t you feel bad about yourself?” approach is all over social media. The fact is, if someone felt bad about an opinion or action, they would have changed their mind before talking to you. Trying to shame someone into coming to your side of the argument only results in greater distancing.
Don’t Circle the Wagons
Gathering like-minded people to support leads to feelings of satisfaction and victory, but only in the short term. Ultimately, this approach results in tribalism; a highly unproductive quality.
What to do instead
Do Find Common Values
To find common ground, tie your discussion into what you know the other person values. If someone says wearing a mask strips them of their rights and freedoms, don’t tell them they are wrong. Recognize that they are concerned about personal rights; and that’s a good thing. Talk about how wearing a mask could be seen as an expression of their rights, rather than the loss of them. In the end, people discover that their values are more aligned than they thought, they just choose to express their values differently.
Do Talk About Consequences
When people make decisions, it is because they are predicting an outcome. Rather than try to convince someone their facts are wrong, talk about the consequences of different actions. Avoid predicting world-ending consequences in an attempt to force someone’s hand. Keep the consequences grounded in reality. If someone’s actions are likely to result in a laundry list of bad outcomes, there is a greater chance that you can discuss different options.
Allow for Incubation
We all want other people to listen to our argument and say, “Wow! You’re right.” Good luck waiting for that to happen. Whenever the human brain gets a shock—a surprise, new information, a change of plan—it needs time to absorb it and process. That usually takes overnight, which is where Let’s sleep on it came from. While we sleep, we go over everything we experienced that day and we awake a new perspective. Don’t push people to admit to they are wrong. Give them time to incubate.
A good leader doesn’t pretend teams will work things out for themselves. Divisiveness leads to resentment, destroying cohesion, retention, and productivity. Lead team members toward cohesion, no matter what side of the fence they’re on.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.