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.
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