How to Respectfully Discuss Contentious Issues at Work
A recent study shows that people don’t feel safe speaking their minds at work, especially on controversial topics. But the author argues that this may depend more on how we perceive our interlocutors than on the complexity of the subjects themselves. After all, when we talk about emotionally and politically risky issues, we tend to see the other person in a more negative light. We tell each other stories that portray us as righteous victims and the other party as evil villains. To feel more confident and less fearful about talking with your peers, you can use certain tactics, including maintaining your curiosity, focusing on facts rather than judgments or opinions, challenging your assumptions, and acknowledging that you are entitled to your point of view, even if others disagree.
You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that people are more reluctant to speak up at work today than they were a few years ago. I certainly wasn’t shocked when a study our firm conducted in late 2021 with over 1,400 people confirmed this. After all, we live in one of the most unstable social landscapes of our time. But while this finding was not surprising, the scale of the fear was. Nine out of 10 respondents felt emotionally or physically unsafe to speak out more than once in the past 18 months. And 39% said they did not feel safe every day or every week. Only 7% say they are always so confident in social situations.
The topics people most dreaded discussing were, again, not shocking: political or social issues (74%) and Covid issues (70%) rank among the most dreaded.
But, fortunately, the purpose of the study was not to validate the obvious. This was to explore a slightly less obvious hypothesis — we wondered if a significant part of our heightened anxiety was of our own creation rather than a function of current conditions.
When we talk about emotionally and politically risky issues, we tend to see the other person in a more negative light. We tell each other stories that portray us as righteous victims and the other party as evil villains. This narration generates emotions of disgust and fear, which we introduce into the conversation. These emotions further cause conflict and lead to a downward spiral that reinforces our personal judgment and fuels our negative feelings.
In our study, we relied on a long-established concept in psychological research called the least preferred colleague scale to find subjects who tended to judge others more harshly. Fred Fiedler, a business and management psychologist who developed the scale, found that he could identify leaders who were difficult to get along with by asking them to describe someone they thought they it was difficult to agree on a series of scales. Those who tended to judge more harshly tended to be those who cared less about people and more about work.
We first asked the subjects to describe their level of fear in a recent social situation. Next, we asked them to rate the person they met on 11 personality dimensions. For example, were they kind or mean, moral or immoral, rational or irrational? A number of dimensions would not be relevant to fear (e.g., sincere vs. insincere or smart vs. stupid), but were used to test whether someone appears to judge someone harshly across the board. We then compared the fear levels of those whose stories were more nuanced to those who held widespread negative judgments of others. We used stepwise regression to calculate the extent to which the subject’s fear could be explained by harsher stories as opposed to actual speaking risks.
The result? Those who tended to tell more extreme stories about fellow conversationalists were more than three times more likely to be fearful and 3.5 times more likely to lack the confidence to speak up.
The magnitude of the effect stories have on our confidence and ability to speak is staggering, but it makes sense. If I think you’re an ignorant, evil jerk, I’m more likely to think you’ll be vindictive – or worse – if I disagree with you. (Of course, I don’t want to discount the idea that talking is risky, especially if you disagree with your boss. This study focused primarily on speaking with peers.)
We also combed through our data to see if there were any respondents who faced similar communication challenges with equally challenging peers, but felt more confident and less afraid to speak up. . Their responses revealed a host of tactics each of us can use to defuse our own stories and enter into conversations, even conversations about difficult topics, more effectively.
Get him to safety.
This tactic was used by 76% of respondents who felt confident speaking up. When emotions heat up, reassure others of your respect for them and emphasize the values you both share.
“When I had to introduce employees to the state-mandated Covid vaccine requirements, I knew I had to do so while showing care and consideration for their personal choices and beliefs. I went there with respect and care for my staff and their feelings, choices and beliefs. I started the conversation by honoring them, providing them with facts about what was going on, and providing opportunities for them to ask questions and share their opinions and thoughts.
Used by 72% of respondents, rather than trying to decide “who’s right”, aim to understand the other person’s worldview. Ask questions, seek understanding and show interest.
“On a recent project, our collaborating partners had a habit of not responding to our communications in a timely manner and when they did respond, they did not answer all of our questions. I asked them directly if there was a problem in my communication or if there was something I had missed. This triggered a series of events that changed the way we communicate. I believe that behind every behavior there is a subconscious positive intention. With that in mind, I work hard not to judge people. I take the information for what it is. Observe, but not judge. It helped me navigate difficult situations.
Start with facts, not judgments or opinions.
Used by 68% of respondents, carefully lay out the facts behind their point of view. Use specific and observable descriptions.
“We have a site-level manager who is 100% against masks and vaccines and thinks Covid is a government conspiracy. He declined to enforce the company’s policy on masks and vaccines on his site. I was confident in my discussion with him because I knew I was relaying company policy that needed to be followed. I actively listened to his concerns and showed empathy for his beliefs, but was able to hold the political line with confidence but without arrogance. I tried to help him see beyond his personal beliefs to see the big picture of his role and responsibilities as a manager. It was a very tense conversation, but I was comfortable with what I needed to deliver and how to deliver it.
Don’t focus on conviction.
Used by 48% of respondents, don’t let your primary goal be to change the other person’s mind. Instead, encourage the sharing of ideas and listen before responding.
“I’ve had many conversations recently about the Prime Minister of Canada. My husband thinks he’s responsible for ruining the country. I can express my point of view without telling him that he is wrong or putting him on the defensive. I ask him questions that encourage him to consider a different point of view without insisting that he is wrong.
Be skeptical of your own point of view.
Used by 42% of respondents. Conversations work best when you come in with a combination of confidence and humility. Make sure you have a point of view that is worth being expressed, but humble enough to accept that you don’t have a monopoly on the truth and that new information could change your point of view.
“My friend and I had a lively conversation about homelessness. We came from different perspectives on who the homeless are (are they lazy drug addicts, or victims of misfortune and mental illness, etc.?). Because we were both open to new information, we came to a more nuanced view of things.
Own your right to have your opinion.
Used by 11% of respondents, rather than relying on others to validate your right to your opinion, take responsibility for validating yourself.
“Three colleagues literally pushed me into a corner to talk about vaccines. They all strongly defended their position. Their voices were shrill and firm, but not high. I disagreed with their collective voice and I felt intimidated at first, but then I remembered: they are my teammates, I love and respect them, and they love and respect me, we just have different perspectives/worldviews on a hot topic burning, which aroused a strong passion in them. So I listened, then I answered calmly and firmly that at this moment, my point of view is different from theirs but I will continue to consider the situation. They pushed back (verbally) and simply reaffirmed my personal belief and willingness to reconsider as new information becomes available.
There is no doubt that the past two years have presented us with more controversial topics. But if our fear continues to silence us, the result will not be peace but greater division. This study suggests that we may be fueling our own fear through our exaggerated judgments of each other. Thus, the path to productivity in the workplace and harmony in the world is at least partly in our hands…or our minds. Examine your own stories and you will moderate how you view others. Moderate the way you view others and you’ll be more likely to find a way to have a productive dialogue.