communication skills Tag Archive

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The Price of a Collegial Atmosphere


In the U.S. we do not discuss politics at work. And if somebody expresses an opinionated position, we simply smile, nod and move on to the next topic. Why? Because politics polarizes people and we want to maintain a collegial atmosphere at work. I grew up in India and I have spent a fair amount of time in Europe and Asia. Political discussions are not considered to be as polarizing in those regions of the world; they are viewed simply as a healthy debate.

Does a collegial atmosphere require lack of disagreement?

In a collegial atmosphere, can people disagree, express their opinions with passion and conviction, and close the conversation agreeing to disagree? We tend to believe that discussions must end in agreement or some sort of resolution. This tendency results in inauthentic conclusions to discussions.

Diffuse speakers relax their convictions and specific speakers dig in their heels for an argument. (Read article: Are You Specific or Diffuse?) Do all disagreements have to be resolved one way or the other? Can people maintain healthy relationships knowing full well that they disagree on certain important matters?

Healthy relationships are not measured by the number of hugs, but rather by the number of fights that end in hugs.

It is the ending in hugs that is important, not the lack of fights. Healthy relationships should foster healthy debates. Lack of debates might well be an indicator to the relationship not being healthy.

In creating an intentional corporate culture, you might strive to create a collegial atmosphere. The shadow side of this strength is fear of conflict – where people are reluctant to express their opinion because it is not aligned with the opinion being otherwise aired.

Fear of conflict leads to the loud and obnoxious shouting out the quiet and thoughtful. It leads to the multitude of subordinate opinions deferring to the single opinion of the superior. It leads to the new and different ideas being overwhelmed by the status quo of tried and true practices. In a culture of collegial atmosphere, it is important that you empower, encourage and enable people to face conflict and have healthy debates.

How do you teach people to have a healthy debate?

We offer three common causes for debates to turn ugly, and from it, three ways you can turn debates healthy.

The first cause is Aristotle’s principle of the excluded middle. The belief that there is a right and wrong. Something is good or bad. It is either true or false. Either you are on my side or you are with the enemy. This polarization of thought causes debates to become personal. What is the solution? Try throwing in expressions like, “I believe…” The more you use the term “I believe,” the easier it is for the other person to receive your opinion. So, do you turn everything into a belief?

That naturally leads us to the next reason debates turn ugly – facts versus interpretations.

In a wonderful book called The Communications Catalyst, my good friends and colleagues Mickey Connelly and Richard Rianoshek explain how people co-mingle facts and interpretations. By separating facts (that can be observed and measured) from interpretations (that are your way of looking at the facts and drawing conclusions from them), they argue that you can have more “accurate” and more “authentic” conversations. Instead people pursue “sincere” conversations where, by co-mingling facts and interpretations, they pursue “their truth,” convinced that it is the truth. So separate facts and interpretations and preface your statements with those labels.

Finally, ignoring the old adage, people fail to seek to understand before they seek to be understood. In our opinion, the most important aspect of a healthy debate is the ability to understand and advocate the other person’s point of view. (See our January 2013 Food for Thought, Coaching through Advocacy.) Showing that you can argue the other point of view demonstrates mutual respect for the individual(s), concedes the existence of multiple points of views, acknowledges an appreciation of the strengths of the other side, and in the process, expresses a recognition that the parties at play are not good or bad, right or wrong, based on which position they hold. It leads to hugs at the end of fights.

Following the practice started last month, we will be holding a telecon on this topic.

On February 20, we will hold a complimentary webinar at 8 a.m. (PST) where we will discuss this article and the fear of conflict shadow side of a collegial, friendly work environment. We encourage you to sign up and attend; please visit our event registration page here for more details.

We welcome your comments and encourage you to explore the Food for Thought archive. We hope your business is doing well. We’re happy to chat about the content in this article or anything else with which you’d like assistance.

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Walking with Socrates


“We need to improve our communication” — it’s a refrain we hear often in our line of work. Sound familiar? Does your company/department/team have this “communication thing” licked? Probably not.

Of course, “improving communication” is a pretty diffuse phrase. It encompasses everything from “please use the ‘reply all’ function in Outlook judiciously” to “have the courage to hold difficult conversations with your boss” and everything in between. I’d like to narrow the focus here to a very simple process that will greatly improve your ability to hold conversations of value. It’s straightforward (but not easy) and applicable across many kinds of conversations. It’s called the Socratic Walk.

A little background: The Socratic Walk is a play on the Socratic Method, an application of critical thinking named after everyone’s favorite Greek Philosopher, Socrates. One of the most influential of the ancient philosophers, Socrates comes to us through the writings of Plato and specifically The Dialogues, a series of stories in which Socrates questions his interlocutor (fancy name for a conversational partner) and, in so doing, helps clarify the issue at hand.

Here’s the thing: Socrates never expresses an opinion or becomes prescriptive in his approach — his questions serve as a clarifying force for thinking through the problem, challenge or position.

Socratic Walks are based on the Socratic Method. It’s a very complicated process so please read the instructions that follow carefully. One person talks (and walks); the other listens and asks questions. I’ll repeat that: One person talks (and walks) and the other listens and asks questions. That’s it. If you’re not real clear on the process, please reread the last three sentences.

Two things become immediately apparent when you undertake this practice. First, there is huge value for the “talker” in being given the space to think without worrying his/her train of thought will be interrupted. The clarity of the role — to think out loud — frees the mind to explore and not feel rushed to make a point ahead of the inevitable interruption or challenge or tangential remark from the other party.

Second, the “asker” receives equal, if not greater, value. By removing the need to respond, by focusing on the speaker’s content only for the purposes of asking clarifying questions, true active listening results. In the words of Steven Covey, the asker “seeks first to understand.” Listening for the sake of reaching a common framework of understanding, and resisting the common need to insert the ego-self by responding, is a very valuable skill in its own right. And there is no better tool to train the mind in this way than by engaging in the practice of the Socratic Method via the Socratic Walk.

And why the walk? This is where it all comes together. By formalizing the process in a walk, it is easier for each person to drop into their respective roles. Further, thinking out loud and away from the usual environment is very clarifying in and of itself. After all, how often do you sit around and think out loud (without being fitted for a white canvas jacket with wrap around sleeves)? And finally, I suspect all great thinkers are natural walkers. There is something in the rhythm and energy of the activity that fosters deeper, richer, more meaningful thinking.

Solvitur ambulando, as the Romans used to say; the solution comes through walking.

It sounds simple and obvious, and it is… which is why it works. It’s a great way to noodle out problems and train the mind to listen better. Socratic Walks are a practical, useful tool to improve communication between two people. Try it and share your experience with us. We’d love to hear your experiences walking with (and channeling) Socrates.

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