December 13, 2023

How to Talk to Each Other When The World is Angry and Divided

In the biblical story of Babel, the human race, united by a single language and an aligned vision, begins to build a magnificent tower to reach the heavens. Threatened by this plan, God foils the project, confusing their speech so they can no longer understand each other, and scattering them to different parts of the world.

Thousands of years later, we live the legacy of Babel: confused, dispersed and more at odds with each other than ever. The world is beset by the atrocities of war, political strife and a toxic cocktail of uncertainty and fear. We cancel, fire, censure and shame those who offer contrary perspectives. We commingle hate speech and free speech, experiencing both. As we talk past each other, passions rise and listening falls.

In the old days, the workplace felt immune, protected by a well-accepted list of things you simply don't talk about at work: politics, religion and sex. Today, thanks in large part to social media, people’s beliefs are no longer under wraps. And our ability to navigate these tough topics is not up to the task. One recent study found that 85% of workers engage in regular workplace conflict, wasting 2.8 hours a week and costing employers a staggering $359 billion a year. Since societal polarization bleeds into work, when the world is in conflict one can only expect this “routine” workplace conflict to spike and further erode our ability to work well together. Proof? 37% of workers have reported changing their view of a colleague based on their political beliefs. Polarization at work erodes trust, interpersonal relationships and performance. When we lose the ability to be civil to each other, we lose a lot. Incivility shrinks productivity and expands sick time.

If we can’t even try to hear each other, the future is dire. We don’t have to agree, but in order to peacefully coexist and collaborate at work we do need to be able to respect conflicting perspectives and talk through our differences. As the world crowds into opposing corners, we may feel powerless, but we can at least change the conversation at work. Here are three things you can do to revisit your language, expand your thinking and turn down the heat.

  1. Choose Your Words With Care

    Words matter. Some of the simplest elements of speech (the ones we rarely think about) hold the power to escalate or calm. For example, the word “but” immediately negates what came before it. It turns contrast into contest, and creates a strong need to defend one view over another. As innocuous as it seems, “but” is a fighting word, one we use even when we don't mean to start a fight.

    Try “and” instead. “And” links two ideas, inviting us to consider both at once. And it reflects reality: in most cases more than one thing is true. Performance feedback is a simple and familiar example: we are so conditioned to the negative, that we wait for the "but." Instead of “your performance has been excellent, but you need to be better at responding to email,” consider, “your performance has been excellent, and would be even better if you improved your response time to email.” The first approach diminishes while the second encourages.

    Your metaphors matter too. For example, we often describe arguments in terms of war (a battle to be won or lost). The resulting words are combative. What if you framed an argument as a dance instead? Your words become a choreographed attempt to reach a shared result, a different kind of victory. Instead of trampling each other's ideas, you'd be watching out for each other's toes. Tired metaphors make us lazy and pull us places we don't mean to go. Controlling your words (and the metaphors that couch them) opens the door to more honest conversations and less destructive disagreements.
  2. Don't Let False Dichotomies Cloud Your Thinking

    How we talk starts with how we think. And our thinking is informed by learning, culture, religion and generations of stories. Although we may not agree on what’s good and what’s evil, the struggle between them is what anthropologists call a human universal, deeply embedded in our collective DNA. This binary thinking–right versus wrong, win versus lose–leads us to simplistically approach problems with “either-or” thinking.

    And it’s getting worse because social media makes everything look binary. There’s no room for nuance in a 10-second reel. No wonder we’re increasingly addicted to that world, because the real world is much harder to comprehend–filled with deeply nuanced problems, competing tensions and contradictions at every turn. Things are rarely cut and dried. Behind nearly every dilemma there’s a set of paradoxical or interdependent paths that can’t be addressed with a single solution. These require “both-and” thinking.

    “Both-and” reframes problems to invite you to see two positions in relationship to each other, rather than in opposition. It moves you from choosing between two alternatives to finding a solution that enables them to co-exist. For example, imagine you’re balancing the tradeoffs between high quality and low cost, as many companies do. “Either-or” thinking pits them against each other: one wins at the expense of the other. “Both-and” thinking exhorts you to look deeper, to find and invest in a well-crafted operating system that enables both high quality and low cost, by reducing errors and increasing reliability.

    “Both-and” thinking is hard. At the moment, most of us are exhausted and disillusioned. Our ability to think, reason and hold multiple conflicting ideas at the same time is under threat. “Either-or” seems like the easier path. But simple answers to complex problems are almost always wrong. “Both-and” requires us to consider uncomfortable insights, recognize our blind spots and rethink the way we see the world–and solve its problems.
  3. Say Less, Listen More

    A friend once said, “Having a thought doesn’t require you to share it.” There are times, especially challenging ones, when keeping your own counsel may be your best bet. You may not have enough information to make a cogent point. Or you may be wary of other people’s reactions if you take a position they don’t understand or agree with. The perceived pressure to immediately weigh in, take a stand or pick a side, can result in catastrophic disagreements and mistakes.

    Instead of joining the fray, shift from debate to dialogue, from defending to learning. Ask questions to understand where someone else is coming from, what experience they have that causes them to hold a particular view. Listen to their answers to reveal whether their views are grounded in emotion. Good honest questions invite them to rephrase their positions to help you see them more clearly. Feeling heard helps them de-escalate the anger of defending a point of view.

    When all else fails, there’s silence. Silence is uncomfortable because people may misinterpret your lack of words. But people misinterpret words too. Silence provides an unparalleled opportunity to step back, observe and reflect. By not jumping in right away, you can unscramble your thoughts, balance your emotions and build the strength to weather challenging conversations. And great negotiators know that developing a capacity for silence slows down your instinct to advocate and ramps up your ability to listen. When we listen more, we understand more.

It’s hard to imagine a time before the Tower of Babel when all humans spoke the same language and were united by the same mission. This is inconceivable today. There’s zero chance we will ever agree about the devastating things that are splitting our world in two. But our livelihoods, the health of our workplaces and the preservation of our very humanity depend on us building better skills to engage with opinions different from ours. To reframe uncomfortable conversations not as personal attacks but as opportunities to learn. To address our thorniest issues, we must be willing and able to listen to the experiences, wants and needs of others. To actively seek out views we don’t understand and maybe, just maybe, find common ground we never thought existed. These can be important first steps toward building a tower to a higher and better place.

First published on Forbes.com.

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