A frequent interaction between my kids will go something like this: Girl: ‘boys don't work as hard as girls’. boy: ‘that’s sexist’. Me: ‘That’s lazy’. They have been taught to react (loudly) to what they perceive as unfair. The metoo movement is rightly about bringing abysmal conduct to the fore – denouncing it clearly; and judging it. But most of the time, we are not dealing with harassers and rapists. We are just dealing with people with different points of view. Whether we say it to their faces or behind their back, our appetite to judge others impairs our ability to create dialogue. From dialogue comes understanding and from understanding comes harmony. Surely a worthy goal.
Creating harmony between people is often a bit messy and awkward. We clash all the time: your ways and mine are not the same (I have an irrational dislike of commuters who hammer their keyboard), your values and mine aren’t aligned (we don’t all feel the same about flirting at work). That’s just life and it is not about to change. The real goal is nailing how we move from there. Just objecting is not going to get us very far.
I worry that we have all learned to object without learning to move the conversation forward.
So here is what I want to pass on to my kids and all who seek my help. When you hear something you don’t like, first: listen. Listen to understand. Not to respond. And once you think you have understood the other point of view, show that you have. In words. Then explain your way of seeing things. Explain to be understood. And explaining means resorting to much more than an -ism, or a quick judgment (they’re just a ‘bleeding liberal’ or ‘bigoted Tory’ or just plain wrong). Rather, explain why you think it is not ok. And sometimes it is more about how you feel rather than what you think – and guess what, most people don’t want to make others feel bad.
This conversation is likely to have some awkwardness to it. It may not be an exchange worthy of a debate on Radio 4. Who cares. If we come to these conversations with the intention of creating more understanding, we will be ok with the awkwardness and will probably get to some kind of a resolution. We may agree to disagree (but this time, with a bit more respect) or we may shift one or both points of view. Who knows.
I say embrace the awkwardness of those conversations. A bit (but not quite) like that time when I went to work in Mexico City. The client and I had never met. She is Mexican, I am French. When it came to greet each other, we couldn’t figure out if we should shake hands, kiss or just politely say hi. We did a bit of all three, it was frankly messy but that was ok – because the positive intention was clear.
So next time you encounter an opinion that offends you, I challenge you to open up the dialogue – with a genuine desire to understand and be understood. It takes more effort than judgment but comes with high rewards for us individually, for workplaces and for society.