Episode: How to Have a Civil Conversation on a Tough Subject
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Female: Ideal conversation should be a matter of equal give and take, but too often it is all take.
Megan Hyatt Miller: Emily Post wrote that in her famous book Etiquette way back in 1922, but it could have been written today.
Michael Hyatt: Politics.
Megan: Sports. No matter what you talk about, somebody is bound to have a strong opinion, and they always voice it. When they think they’re right, well, there’s just no changing their mind.
Michael: Not that it stops us from trying. It’s almost impossible to hear somebody sound off about terrorism or the stock market or the latest Twitter hashtag when you know they’re dead wrong. I don’t know if it’s social media or the trolls or the bots or just something in the air, but we have completely lost the ability to talk to each other. Between the Internet memes and anonymous comments, it seems like we’re all screaming to the world about how mad we are. I guess that’s nothing new. The fact that Emily Post had to tell people how to be polite over 100 years ago should tell us something.
Megan: Two hundred years before that, George Washington wrote his Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior. At least a third of them were about how to speak to people. They included no-brainers like:
Male: Think before you speak. Don’t insult people even as a joke. Don’t repost a news story on Facebook if you’re not 100 percent sure it’s true.
Megan: Okay, that may be paraphrased a little, but that’s really what Washington meant by Rule 79: Don’t repeat information you haven’t taken the time to verify.
Michael: All that makes it really hard to have a meaningful discussion about the things that really matter, and that’s too bad, because that’s exactly what we should talk about, and that’s exactly how we should do it: with respect, courtesy, and civility. Is that even possible anymore? Well, Emily Post thought so.
Female: There is a simple rule by which one can at least refrain from being a pest or a bore, and the rule is merely to stop and think.
Michael: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.
Megan: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.
Michael: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work, succeed at life, and lead with confidence. In this episode, we’re talking about a skill every leader has to learn, and it’s becoming more important all the time: how to have a civil conversation about a difficult subject.
Megan: As leaders, we all want to influence people, but defensiveness, closed minds, and angry rhetoric make it almost impossible to be persuasive on important subjects. Over the years, we’ve had at least our share of tense conversations, and we have four simple guidelines that will help you hold a civil conversation on even the most sensitive topic. You can avoid alienating the very people you hope to influence, and you’ll gain the trust that makes them willing to follow your lead.
Michael: I can hardly think of a more timely subject than this one. We seem to have this national shouting match, at least here in the US, which bleeds over into work and family. All of the stuff that’s going on on Facebook during the last major election and our midterm elections, and we can’t even have civil discourse at home. We’re about to celebrate a major holiday in this country, and we’re going to have to have some ground rules. Am I right?
Megan: You’re right.
Michael: Certain things we can’t talk about because of this very issue.
Megan: I think the real problem is that we’re so disconnected from each other. This is actually the theme of a book I read recently, which is excellent, by Senator Ben Sasse called Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal. As a disclaimer, he is a conservative senator, but he is very much about bringing people together and understanding why there’s so much division in our culture and how we can heal that. He talks about how, in a way, we’re more connected than we’ve ever been, but we’re also lonelier than we’ve ever been.
Michael: Thank you, social media.
Megan: Exactly. When we use social media, the research says we actually feel lonelier. We see people less in person, and that’s a real problem. That was actually from a study that was conducted by the University of Pennsylvania that social media makes us feel lonelier. This is kind of counterintuitive, because we feel like we’re more connected than we’ve ever been through social media. There are more people we can stay in touch with than ever before, but we’re actually more lonely at the same time, because social media brings us together but also harms our well being.
In fact, a study by the university of Pennsylvania said that using less social media actually makes you feel less lonely. Conversely, the more you use social media the lonelier you feel. We’re actually more distanced from each other physically too. We’ve lost institutions like church and the rotary club and things like that that used to help people feel connected. We’re isolated in our modern suburban life geographically from one another.
Our mobility for our careers has really increased, so we’re moving around and losing connections with people in neighborhoods and things like that, and we’re less connected at a local level. Fewer people than ever before, according to Ben Sasse, care about what’s going on in their local community. We’re very focused on global events but not focused on local ones, and that’s usually where we have things in common with people.
Michael: Well, here’s the most dangerous part of it, I think: we’re often connected over our anger.
Megan: Yes. What we’re against, not what we’re for.
Michael: Exactly. Grouped by what we’re against. If you study any of the phenomenon of Facebook and some of the other social media networks, it’s fueled by people who profit from it.
Megan: That’s the scary part.
Michael: So, people who are there to sort of poke the bear and get the “clicks” by writing some provocative headline or something that makes you angry that gets you to click on it. We’re being manipulated. You and I both read a few books this summer that had to do with social media and what’s happening with the algorithms. It’s not that somebody just by design decides they’re going to polarize us. It’s just the algorithms make it easy to separate us into these buckets that make it easier to market to us.
Megan: The solution here is more face-to-face connection. It’s exactly what we need in order to get to know each other better, to find out what we have in common, and to ultimately have more civil conversations. But this is a delicate issue for business leaders, because we want to foster community and conversations, but we also want to exercise our influence. This can be tough to navigate at work, and there’s going to be more on that later as we get into this conversation.
Michael: One of the things I want to say about that face-to-face… It’s easy to vilify other people when you don’t spend time with them. If you can abstract them and talk about them as a class, it’s very easy to dismiss them.
Megan: Yeah. I think Brené Brown says people are hard to hate up close. That’s a really good point here.
Michael: It’s a good point.
Megan: We have four guidelines for holding civil conversations on a tough subject. What’s the first one?
Michael: The first guideline is begin where you agree. This is really important. I learned this up close and personal when I attended a conference about 15 years ago. I was one of the attendees in this conference. There were probably about 50 of us. We were from about 30 different countries and 4 major religions. The conference organizer made that clear to us on the front end.
The first exercise we did was to focus on what we had in common. Now, your mind would naturally go, in a context like that, to where we’re different. “You’re a Hindu, and I’m a Christian. I’m from this country, and you’re from that country. We’re different races, different genders,” and everything else. They paired us up with somebody who wasn’t from our home country. Then we had to list as many ways as we were the same.
On my list, with the person I was working with, we had like 84 different things where we were the same, like, “We want a better future for our kids. We love our spouse. We know we need to get better at that. We want work where we’re making enough money to provide for our families and provide for their education.” We went through all of these things.
You realize if you look at a Venn diagram that the overlap between what we want is so similar. We had so much in common. Then we went from that to discussing where we were different, but now we had a common foundation. We had a basis. So we realized that in the context of wanting mostly the same stuff we could tolerate our differences. That was a huge lesson for me to see.
Megan: That’s one of the points Ben Sasse makes in his book. We’ve forgotten how to be Americans. As Americans, we have so many things we want in common, regardless of our political affiliation within that context, that we should and really do…we’ve just forgotten…have way more in common about what we want than what separates us. We just focus on all of the things that are in conflict with one another instead of what we share.
Michael: To kind of globalize that, unfortunately, as Americans, we have exported our polarization too. Germans are challenged with this, and people in Great Britain and South America. You could go anywhere you want, but people are challenged with this kind of polarization, so I think it applies to everybody.
We have to focus on looking for the overlapping interests in the areas of agreement, and I think one of the things we can do as leaders is to really notice that. Even with people with whom we might violently disagree and think we have nothing in common, to intentionally look for the common ground, to acknowledge it, to call it out, and to see that as the basis for a civil conversation is the foundation.
Megan: It’s kind of like…what if you sat around your Christmas table or your Thanksgiving table and your role at the table was to notice the things you had in common or that other people had in common, even if there’s a heated debate? Like, “What I see you saying is you really care about this, and you also really care about this. It kind of looks different, but you have these things in common.” That could be an interesting exercise.
Michael: That could be. Let’s try it. Not every issue or problem has an either/or solution. This kind of binary thinking, frankly, is not very helpful. It leads to polarization. Often, the solution is found in a third way that neither party is considering. One of the things I’ve also learned is sometimes, instead of polarizing and talking about the theory of it, to propose an experiment. “Maybe that’ll work. Maybe it won’t. Why don’t we try it?” Instead of just having to make this ideological argument based on theory, how about let’s just try that? Let’s just see if it works.
Megan: I have found that the third way is almost always the way, that it’s usually the most sophisticated kind of thinking you can do, and that anytime we find ourselves in binary thinking we’re kind of in a polarized place that’s ultimately not going to be very productive. That’s a good way to judge your own posture in a conversation.
Michael: That’s good. Another key here is to be willing to hold ideas in tension. Not all ideas resolve neatly, and they don’t have to resolve. You can kind of hold them in tension. Like individual rights versus corporate responsibility. Again, we can fall into binary thinking, but I would prefer to just hold that in tension. Or personal morality versus public policy or asset protection versus venture spending. It’s not either/or. Hold these in tension, and the tension is good.
Megan: Yeah, because we want to look for those overlapping areas of interest where we agree, and we probably have more in common than what separates us. We both want the good of the company, the country, the community, our family, and identifying the common ground really builds trust. I think that is a key idea here. When there isn’t trust, you don’t have the equity in a relationship to have a hard conversation. You have to establish trust before you try to venture into the land of hard conversations, which are vulnerable conversations.
Michael: I agree. One of the things also, just as a warning… We need to be careful about how we’re being manipulated by the news media; again, for the sake of clicks. I am not opposed to journalism, and I consume the news, and I love reading good journalism, but we have to remember we’re being manipulated. The Facebook algorithms and all the rest create this polarization that makes things seem more black and white than they really are, that makes people seem like they hate each other more than they do.
We typically go to the extremes in the news media, and by virtue of the fact that it’s ubiquitous and we report on it everywhere it makes it seem like it’s everywhere. But you go into any major… Like, I was in New York a couple of weeks ago. I was with people I probably had very little in common with socioeconomically or any other way, like a person I was riding with in a cab, yet we found amazing common ground. We’re just humans. We’re trying to get along the best we can, and finding that common ground becomes the basis for a civil discussion. We don’t have to be at each other’s throats, like you would tend to believe if all you did was consume the media.
Megan: One of the things I realized was happening to me recently… I have the New York Times app on my phone, and that’s my default… You may disagree with me on this point. That’s okay, but I like to read the New York Times. Well, what is happening is the articles I’m clicking on are now curating the feed I get every day.
So if I’m interested in technology one week and I click on two or three articles on technology… Or right now I’ve clicked on the California wildfires because my in-laws live in Northern California. All I see is that, so my perspective on what’s happening in the world is totally being dictated by the algorithm that takes my preferences into account. Then I begin to see the world only through the lens of my own interests and perceptions, which become narrower and narrower and narrower.
Michael: Well, here’s the worst part of that. It’s actually worse than that. Jaron Lanier wrote the book we read this summer about “Get off all social media immediately.” He said it’s worse than that. For example, if the algorithm figures out you’re a conservative Republican, then it’ll periodically throw the most outrageous, left-wing headline into your news feed just to tick you off and get you to click on it, because it’s all about the “clicks.”
The same thing happens on the other side. If you’re a more liberal-minded Democrat, occasionally they’ll throw some outrageous, right-wing conspiracy thing into your feed so it’ll tick you off and you’ll click on it. It’s a way that they’re dividing us into buckets and polarizing us. So, the first guideline for having a civil conversation on a tough subject is to begin where you agree. I can’t overstate the importance of that as a foundational element. Where do we go from there?
Megan: The second guideline is to keep an open mind. Everybody now seems to believe they’re absolutely right on 100 percent of everything. Have you noticed that?
Michael: It’s crazy.
Megan: It’s like on things that don’t even matter. We just have to have an opinion on everything, whether it’s important or not. We’re absolutely certain we’re right. We often say politics has become tribal, that we either have risk-takers versus careful managers or marketing versus production (this happens inside of companies) or red states versus blue states. When we always side with our tribe, we can’t grow or change, and a closed mind, of course, leads to gridlock. Here’s a revolutionary question to ask: “Where am I wrong?” or “Where am I blind? Is it possible that I don’t know everything?”
Michael: This may be a function of age, but the older I get, the more I hold my beliefs and opinions more loosely. I just like the exercise of challenging myself and challenging the people around me on ideas. If I’m sitting with a bunch of conservatives, then I like to challenge their conservatism. If I’m sitting with some liberals, I want to challenge that. I just think it’s good for all of us to mix it up and, again, practice keeping an open mind.
Megan: Right. The other question is, “Can I learn from others who have a different view than me?” Very often, issues that are really important, if they’re not on our ticket or whatever, then we lose visibility on those things, and they actually do really matter. Maybe we would see them from a different perspective, but they are important, and other people with a different viewpoint give us access to things we would otherwise miss.
Michael: Do you intentionally try to mix with people who hold different opinions than you?
Megan: Yeah, I do. It’s so interesting to see where they’re coming from, because more times than I can count I’ve been in a situation where it’s like, “Oh, I never would have thought of it that way.” Actually, my husband Joel does this a lot with me. He has a unique political perspective, to say the least.
Michael: To say the least.
Megan: It’s not always how I would by default think of things, and he challenges me all the time. Usually I’m like, “Huh, I’m not sure I agree with you, but I never would have thought of that before,” and that’s important to consider. I think that’s what we want to do with each other.
Michael: The good thing about him, too, is he has an open mind.
Megan: He does have an open mind.
Michael: So I push back on him. His bark is worse than his bite. He’ll say something like it’s God’s truth, but when I push back on him he’ll rethink it. He’s open.
Megan: A neat concept here is one I learned from a book called Radical Candor by Kim Scott. It’s actually going to be in our LeaderBox next month in December. It’s something she calls quiet listening. Loud listening would be to make a strong statement and then defend it, sort of like rolling a grenade into the room.
It’s useful if you’re probing an idea for flaws, and it can be valuable in decision-making, if you’re in a meeting about that, but outside of a conference room it can lead to arguments, especially if you’re the boss. If you just throw down some big idea and walk away, it can be much more like a grenade. She talks about this idea of quiet listening, which is about seeking to understand, not defend.
Michael: This is hard.
Megan: It’s really hard. It requires a lot of self-discipline as a leader. To make eye contact, to listen for the argument and facts and, secondly, to the heart and intentions, not to interrupt… This is really, really, really hard for some of us. Then to not spend time forming counterarguments in your head, to actually listen completely.
Michael: Man, I think this is the hardest of all, because this is why we keep talking past one another. You see this in debates. You see this in interviews on TV. You see this on college campuses. People aren’t listening. Like Dr. Covey said, seeking first to understand, then to be understood. They’re only concerned about getting their point of view across. I’ve caught myself doing this, where I’m not really hearing what you’re saying; I’m just thinking about how I’m going to frame up my next argument to obliterate the one I think you’re making.
Megan: I might be guilty of that too from time to time.
Michael: There’s this other concept, too, that I’ve learned. I actually learned this from your sister Mary. Hold the space. What that means is don’t be afraid of the silence, and don’t feel the need to be defensive, but be willing to sit with an opposing opinion and just consider it. Just think about it. Process it. If we react, what we do is we don’t really get the benefit of it. We don’t really hear it. We don’t let it sink in.
To hold the space means to listen intently, and it creates trust so the other person feels like they’re heard. Somebody who’s really good at this, by the way, is your uncle. We’re on totally opposite planets when it comes to politics, so when he comes for a visit every year, like he does, one of the things he’ll often say to me when I’ll express an opinion (and he’s so much better at this than I) is, “Okay, help me understand what you see that I don’t see.”
Megan: That’s a great question.
Michael: Yeah. He’s really probing. He says, “I don’t really understand that or I don’t agree with that opinion, but help me understand what you’re seeing, because I do respect you, and I don’t think you just made that up, and I think that’s coming from somewhere, so help me see what you’re not expressing.”
Megan: Gosh, I’m going to try that. That’s really hard. Actually, it’s really vulnerable, because I think what it does is it places you, as the listener, in a place of uncertainty, because you’re willing to say, “This idea I am holding so fast to may not be quite as certain as I thought, and I’m willing to accept the reality that there’s another viewpoint that could be better or important to consider than my own.”
Michael: It’s kind of the posture of a learner, not a teacher. I’m willing to learn from you even though I disagree with you.
Mike Boyer: Hey, everybody. Mike Boyer here for the content team at Michael Hyatt & Company. Just wanted to remind you that each week’s Michael Hyatt magazine features a series of articles on the theme of the podcast. This week, be sure to check out 3 Leaders Reveal Their Hardest Conversations by Andrea Williams. There’s a link in the show notes, along with a complete transcript of today’s show. That’s at leadto.win.
One of the resources Michael mentions in this episode is Radical Candor by Kim Scott. That’s a LeaderBox selection for next month, paired with another great title on communication. If you’re not already a subscriber, this is a great opportunity to join. Check it out in the show notes. Now let’s get back to it.
Megan: The first guideline for holding a civil conversation on a tough subject is to begin where you agree. The second is to keep an open mind. What’s next?
Michael: The third guideline is get your facts straight. By this I mean have solid evidence and a sound argument. If you pick up something on the Internet, before you cite it in an argument, check it against Snopes.com or some other fact-check service. Just this weekend somebody posted something, and they quoted something that I thought, “That sounds outrageous. That can’t be right.” Sure enough, I looked it up on Snopes, and it was totally bogus. So I just quietly posted the link in the comment. Usually that’s enough.
I’ve caught myself doing this as well. “Hey, I read it on the Internet. It has to be true.” No, you have to check your facts, and you have to learn to think too. You can’t be guilty, for example… One of the worst is confirmation bias, where every piece of evidence… Even if it initially sounds contrary to the position I’m holding, I reinterpret it so that it supports my conclusion. We have to be very aware of our assumptions when we go into this. Confirmation bias is a real thing.
Megan: Joel, my husband, is great at this. He is the master of pulling together the facts in an unbiased way and then letting the facts tell their story. I find this much harder to do. I’m much more emotionally invested in things just kind of by my personality, but he does a really good job of staying in that dispassionate place, which helps him to be very persuasive when he needs to be.
Michael: Yeah, that’s good. Just three quick tips to summarize this guideline. First, always be sure of your data. I kind of covered that, but make sure you verify the source. Make sure somebody actually said that. Make sure the source is reputable. One of the things I learned from the book Factfulness is to always check who the sponsor of the research is. If, for example, you’re getting advice about certain exercise programs or diets and all that, you have to be careful who sponsored that, because somebody may just be trying to stir the pot and create the need.
Megan: They might have a vested interest in you believing that outcome.
Michael: Exactly right. You can remember the old saying, which I think actually originated with Edgar Allan Poe, “Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.”
Megan: It’s even truer now than ever.
Michael: I know. We mentioned George Washington earlier, but he said, “Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof.” It sounds like a proverb, doesn’t it? Secondly, never mischaracterize the opposing view. I’ve done this before, but I never want in an argument or a debate with somebody for them to say, “You’ve just created a straw man. That is not what I believe.” If I haven’t taken the time to listen and really understand what they believe, and if I can’t say it in a way that they can own, then I’ve mischaracterized it. That’s why it takes time to get to know the opposing viewpoint so you can state it accurately.
Megan: Well, you never want to say things like, “You always…” or “You never…” Anything that would generalize or magnify things that take away the nuance of someone else’s argument is really going to be problematic.
Michael: Thirdly, never resort to personal attacks. This is the worst. You see it in politics all the time. You see it in the news media all the time. It’s called the ad hominem argument, which in Latin means against the man. It’s when you bash your opponent by attacking them personally. You would say things like, “You can’t believe anything that guy says; he’s a liar” or “Are you going to trust that con man?” or “He never gets his facts straight.” Again, you see this in political ads all the time.
This is especially important for leaders, because if you don’t verify the data you may end up very embarrassed. For example, you’re trying to resolve a conflict between two employees, so you go on the basis of what one employee reports without going back and verifying with the other employee or, better yet, getting them both in the same room together so that they have some accountability. If you don’t verify that… I’ve been on the cusp of taking action that would have been difficult to roll back based on getting one side of the story.
Megan: The flip side of that is you might unintentionally mislead people or influence them in a certain way that is outsized, as we’ve often talked about. As a leader, your opinion is magnified, and if it’s not based on reliable facts… People will take action on your opinion and your directives, and if that’s based on bad information, you’re going to have a real mess on your hands.
Michael: So, again, verify. So the first guideline for holding a civil conversation on a tough subject is to begin where you agree, second is to keep an open mind, and third is to get your facts straight. What’s the fourth guideline?
Megan: The fourth guideline is to be willing to state your view but with humility.
Michael: So important.
Megan: It’s okay to say what you think. Some of us feel like we just have to withdraw from these conversations entirely. I’m kind of given to that, actually, because the conflict can just be not enjoyable, but it’s okay to say what you think. Dialogue can’t take place if you’re not willing to give your view, and false agreement isn’t helpful. So stating your opinion is important to do with confidence and kindness, and that may actually help others accept or consider your opinion.
Michael: What about people with certain personality types, though? I think there are some people who are so conflict-averse there are certain topics they won’t talk about. I, for one… Another example with your husband Joel. We like to talk about politics.
Megan: I know. I’ve been very nervous in the back seat sometimes before with this. I’m going to be honest.
Michael: I know. It doesn’t bother me at all. I enjoy it. To me it’s entertaining, and I always learn something from it, even though we’re both expressing strong opinions. But there are some people who just don’t like this. I think you also have to be respectful of those people. When it creates anxiety in other people, it’s probably not worth it.
Megan: I think that’s very true, because some people are just put off or threatened by really high intense emotional situations, and other people enjoy that. They actually feed off of the debate. Our conversation today is about how you have a civil conversation on a tough subject, not how you tolerate a super-intense conversation. I think the point here is that you can tailor these conversations to personality types, and they can be more or less intense given what people have a tolerance for, but you should have them either way, and they can be done in a civil manner even if there’s more or less intensity.
Michael: That’s where humility comes in. I don’t think we have to state this as if it’s an absolute truth that came down from Mount Sinai that God gave to us. We can’t always be sure we’re right. We need to hold our opinions loosely and give the other person the dignity by admitting that they may have a point and certainly have a perspective, and they might even be right. Luci Swindoll taught me this years ago. In answer to critics she said, “You know what? You might be right.”
Megan: That diffuses a lot.
Michael: It diffuses a lot. When you square off with that person it only intensifies their opinion, and they redouble their efforts and double down on getting you to see their point of view, but to just say, “You might be right…”
Megan: It’s also true.
Michael: It’s also true. It’s kind of a practical application of Proverbs 15:1: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” There’s probably no more practical proverb than that one right there.
Megan: It’s a good one. This whole idea of being willing to state your view but with humility is never more important than when you’re in a business context as a leader. This is critical. We have to remember that as leaders and business owners there’s a power differential between us and our team, our staff. Our words weigh a thousand pounds, figuratively speaking.
We have to give other people permission to speak. As leaders, we have to make it safe for other people to disagree with us, and we have to fight fair. It’s not fair to not acknowledge the power differential that exists. You may just be sharing your opinion offhandedly, but somebody else may not feel like they have the freedom to disagree with you because you’re the boss.
Michael: Yeah, you shared we me the other week a situation where I did this with an employee present, with one of our teammates. You just said, “Dad, I think you were unaware of the power differential there. You were just kind of talking.”
Megan: Right. You were just talking.
Michael: “But you were kind of mindless about it and shared an opinion that made her uncomfortable, and you can’t do that.”
Megan: She didn’t feel like she could come back at what you said, probably. I’m assuming. I didn’t talk to her about it, but I’m assuming she wouldn’t have felt comfortable. In your mind you were just offhandedly saying something. I think that’s something that’s so easy to forget, because, as leaders, we don’t have the perception of ourselves as that thousand-pound idea, but the people who report to us sure do, and we need to never lose sight of that.
Michael: Where this really gets practical is when we give other people the permission to disagree with our opinion and it’s okay. It doesn’t make them less than. It doesn’t make us better than, but it just makes it different, and that’s kind of what makes the world go around. I heard years ago somebody say, “If both of us agree, then one of us is unnecessary.” There’s real value from getting opposing opinions.
I can think of my 40-year marriage to your mother. We often disagree. We are like the total opposite on every personality test. She loves to challenge just for the sake of challenging, and I’m better for it. I’m glad we don’t always agree. I’m glad I have her perspective, because it’s so different than my perspective. The same is true in your company. The same is true in your nation. I think the fabric of our nation as a country… If we had everybody who believed by me, God help us.
Megan: This is really important, kind of back to the leadership idea here. There just may be some conversations you’re not going to have with people at different levels of your org chart because the power differential is too great for it to be a fair setup for that conversation. You may need to reserve certain conversations (for example, politics) for conversations where you’re truly with your peers, where there’s enough equity in the relationship that you can have disagreement, because as much as you try as a leader, it may never be safe enough for people to disagree on certain topics, so part of having a civil conversation is realizing that those conversations happen best in certain places.
Michael: I’m not sure I’d agree with that.
Megan: Really? Tell me.
Michael: Well, first of all, I totally get that I can’t go willy-nilly expressing my opinion because of that power differential, but I think I’m just kind of naturally curious, and I like to ask people questions about why they believe what they believe or what their point of view is. I feel like that informs my own understanding and my own learning. Do you think that would be unsafe?
Megan: No, I think that’s fine, provided there is equity. I don’t mean positional equity, but I mean you have trust built up in the relationship. I think that can be fine if there is that, but that’s not the same thing as putting your opinion out there with great force. I think asking questions with curiosity is always a good idea if there’s enough trust in the relationship where people feel like they can be honest. I think stating a super-strong political opinion in the context where people, because of a power differential, don’t feel like they can push back is probably not a great idea.
Michael: Yeah. Well, let me put it this way. As leaders, something we need to do is create an environment that’s safe for dissent. That’s on us. People are going to read how we respond. They’re probably going to read our body language. If they start expressing something that’s different than what I believe, if I start crossing my arms or looking like I’m tense or start frowning, or whatever, that’s going to shut that down, and that’s also going to shut down stuff I need to hear.
Some of the best thinking, some of the best counsel you’ll ever get is from people you disagree with. If you don’t make space for that, your organization is not going to grow and you’re not going to grow. You’re just going to stay the same. You’re going to be static. God forbid that we would attract people to our organization who all think like we do. We’ve seen the downfall of that even in our own organization, and we’re much better today by attracting a much more diverse group of people than we had at the beginning.
Megan: I totally agree. I think we actually do agree on your point there. The only thing I would say in addition to creating space for people to feel like they can disagree… If we’re just talking about politics, I think that’s a different thing.
Michael: I think you’re right.
Megan: That’s its own special category. Today we’ve learned that you really can have a civil conversation on a tough subject if you start where you agree, keep an open mind, get your facts straight, and state your own view with humility. As we wrap it up for today, I want to remind you that leadership is more about influence than power. When other people trust you, they’ll be more willing to listen to what you have to say. Dad, do you have any final thoughts for us?
Michael: Yeah. I’m challenged by this content, because I don’t have 100 percent right, and I want to get better at this myself. I realize there’s a lot at stake. I want to be a model of how this can be done. I think what we need is more people who are committed to civil discourse, more people who are willing to engage with people they disagree with but to do it in a civil way that’s productive and positive. If we don’t do that, I fear for our nation. I fear for the world. We have to get this right, and it starts with us.
Megan: If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, you can get the show notes, including a full transcript, online at leadto.win.
Michael: Thanks again for joining us on Lead to Win. Also, please tell your friends and colleagues about it and subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen. We invite you to join us next week when we’ll show you how to break through the achievement barrier you may not even be aware of. It’s called the upper limit problem. Until then, lead to win.