Having diverse voices at the table to build more creative solutions can be one of those things that sounds great in theory but is oh-so-hard to put into practice. Instead of a healthy exchange of ideas, it can devolve into unproductive turmoil, the person with the most power just calling the shots or even avoidance of complicated issues in a desire to keep the peace.
But if you can actually get to that give-and-take, not only can you gain a whole lot more ideas for consideration, but you can strengthen relationships in the process with better understanding of other perspectives and even hearing one another’s fears and concerns. Learning how to talk through different positions goes way beyond being nice to actually harnessing the power of more minds, more perspectives and a greater variety of experiences.
Start with a different end in mind
The concepts of influence and persuasion are critical competencies for leaders; the ability to share and promote your ideas is a foundational skill. But it’s easy to over-invest in advocating for your own ideas without hearing those others have to share. And that can be dangerous in competitive, fast-paced environments where companies must constantly innovate to thrive.
When you’ve staked out a position and set up your defenses, it becomes nearly impossible to take in new information. But that’s most often where novel ideas are born. As Adam Grant, author of Think Again
, wrote in The New York Times
, “If no one ever argues, you’re not likely to give up on old ways of doing things, let alone try new ones. We’re at our most imaginative when we’re out of sync.”
But living in that “out of sync” area requires a very different skillset than command and control, and a whole lot more intention and energy than the old “because I said so” approach. One group that provides guidance on how to interact in that creative, and often confusing, mélange of voices is the nonprofit Civil Conversations Project. It grew out of the On Being
public radio show that “takes up the great questions of meaning in 21st
century lives” when audience research showed an especially broad cross-section of listeners.
Talking together and not over
The Civil Conversations Project, as well as organizations such as the National Center for Family Philanthropy, provide guidelines that can help you develop meaningful conversation among people with different viewpoints and experiences at work, with family and in your personal pursuits. Here are some of the basics to help you get to the good stuff: more innovative ideas, decreased conflict, mutual understanding and stronger relationships.
- Share your authentic self. In potentially contentious situations, you may have a tendency to play a familiar role or hide behind pat answers. When you start from a position of authenticity instead, you can lower your barriers and share your actual concerns and fears, as well as your most creative ideas. As a leader, role modeling such vulnerability is a great way to launch conversations where you truly want diverse perspectives and want everyone to feel comfortable enough to fully participate. One of the most powerful things you can model is a willingness to change your mind.
- Set expectations from the start. When people understand that a range of thought is actually what you’re looking for, they are more likely to share it. When you state up front that you understand there are multiples perspectives within the group, and that some might even be at odds with one another, but that the purpose is to explore a wide range, you set the stage for participants to expect to be heard and expect to listen.
The Civil Conversations Project uses the word “hospitality” to point to tangible ways you can very quickly create a more welcoming, affirming experience. Could meeting at a round table or seated in comfortable chairs gathered together help? Moving the meeting to a beautiful outdoor space? Providing healthy snacks? Asking each person to share one thing they are proud of that they’ve accomplished at work in the past month? When you offer something unexpected but positive, it can help to reset people’s behaviors in a more constructive and open direction.
- Appreciate areas of common interest. Even though you may not be striving for people to agree (which can squelch creativity), it is helpful to acknowledge shared goals. Everyone wants to fix the issue of increasing customer complaints or growing wait times. You can revisit shared perspectives throughout the conversation to help people see ways in which they are pulling in the same direction.
- Generous listening. Let’s be honest, a lot of times what looks like listening is just biting your tongue until you can talk again. Real listening springs from a sense of curiosity. Picture yourself reading a fantastic novel or watching a gripping movie; you can’t wait to read, hear or see what happens next. When you bring bona fide curiosity to a conversation, you listen to learn and understand and not simply to refute. The Civil Conversations Project’s grounding virtues describe real listening as including “. . . a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.”
- Bring things to a distinct close. You don’t want to let the meeting peter out or end ambiguously, especially if tensions are rising. Ask participants to reflect over the next few days and then post a brief paragraph or two on a shared platform that explains what they learned, new ideas they’d like to pursue or a new topic that was raised for them. This can help keep the conversation going and provide a foundation for the next one. Finally, close with sincere thanks that doesn’t gloss over conflicts but recognizes the effort people invested in sharing candidly and listening deeply.