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3 Ways to Talk about Differences – to Help Your Organization & Your Blood Pressure

positive employee communication (illustration)

Photo credit: (Rudzhan Nagiev)

If you’re like many people, you may feel that – given the toxic, polarized state of public discourse these days – it’s best to avoid differences of opinion in the workplace. 

But that’s not necessarily so, says Mónica Guzmán, journalist and author of I Never Thought of It That Way: How To Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.

“There’s a great story from the former CEO of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan,” she says. He is discussing something with his top leadership team and voices his sense that everyone shares the same opinion—all the heads around the table nod. 

Then he says, “OK, I say that we postpone this discussion until next time – until we can form some disagreement and understand what this issue is really about.

Guzmán says she loves that story because Sloan recognized that not engaging an issue from different angles meant they were not looking at it in all its complexity.

“Disagreement, conflict, friction is good,” she says. “Disagreement makes us better thinkers. We’ve had research show us this over and over again. 

“We also know that when we talk only with like-minded people, our opinions tend to get more extreme in that direction,” she adds. “But when we talk with people with different opinions, we tend to find more nuance and complexity in the issues we’re dealing with.”

And in today’s complex world, she suggests, that the kind of thinking we need – including in the workplace. 

The trick is to communicate differences of opinion in healthy ways, not toxic ones. Here are three tips Guzmán offers for doing that: 

  1. First, talk with people instead of about them.

    Is there someone at work who you often disagree with? Don’t avoid them or vent about them. Talk to them. 
  1. Ask, “What is your concern?”

    We often want to say, “Why do you think that? That doesn’t make sense.” If you stop and say, “What concerns you?” people lay things out on the table, and you can see what you can work with. The trick is not to jump to judgment. 
  1. Look for “I-never-thought-of-it-that-way” moments. 

Conversations are extraordinarily sophisticated. You sense how connected you feel. You sense whether you’re marching in the same direction. 

One sign that you are is if you’re feeling like you’re discovering something. I call them “I-never-thought-of-it-that-way” moments: “Oh, yeah, I never thought of it that way. That’s kind of cool.” then you feel like you’re discovering something. And those moments are cool because they make what is otherwise a real slog and uncomfortable suddenly delightful.

Of course, Guzmán adds, “Disagreements at work can be particularly tough to navigate because of the complications of power structures. We also build up a lot of baggage about each other. And you have to work with some of these folks every darn day, you don’t want to make anything toxic or make it too difficult to work together in the future. 

“But at work is the most incredible opportunity to build cultures of strong disagreement because you get this random assortment of people; we don’t get to choose the people we work with. So we get this opportunity to make the most of what each of us brings.”

Mónica Guzmán

Mónica Guzmán is a journalist, entrepreneur, and director of digital and storytelling at Braver Angels, the nation’s largest cross-partisan organization, working to depolarize America. She spoke at the 2022 Pennsylvania Conference for Women. This article is based on her talk.

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