Chances are you’ve found yourself in this uncomfortable situation during a recent conversation with a co-worker, family member or Toastmasters colleague: A topic arises that stops a seemingly pleasant discussion in its tracks or that escalates into a simmering discussion with both sides quickly digging in their heels. Whether tied to a political, work-based, religious or other sensitive topic, what had been an innocent interaction becomes a battle of wills and entrenched belief systems with little attempt to find common ground or mutual understanding.
Few would disagree that it’s become harder for us to talk to one another in a civil, thoughtful and constructive fashion. Recent polarizing political elections, the proliferation of social media and a shift in norms around societal decorum have led to walls replacing bridges in many of our personal or work-related interactions. Incivility, close-minded thinking or demeaning comments not only can shatter personal relationships, they can splinter Toastmasters clubs or work teams, undermine trust, impair collaboration and negatively impact organizational or group performance.
How can we learn to communicate and interact more effectively with those who don’t share our points of view, our cultures or our life experiences? Experts say there are some guidelines that can help navigate these difficult conversations toward more productive outcomes.
Developing Open Mindsets
Having open-minded conversations with those who have different perspectives not only honors the rules of civil behavior, communication experts say, it’s also a critical skill for life success. Ann Van Eron, founder of Potentials, a global coaching and organization development firm in Chicago, Illinois, and author of the book OASIS Conversations: Leading with an Open Mindset to Maximize Potential, says one of the most important things we can do in these challenging scenarios is to “assume positive intent” in other parties. “Assume that most people are doing the best they can based on what they are hearing or seeing,” Van Eron says. “Most are not consciously plotting to upset or hurt you. It’s a human condition to judge others, but it’s essential that we learn how to manage our judgments.”
“We tend to scour social media, the news and conversations for confirmation of what we already believe and ignore any information to the contrary.”— DAVID LIVERMORE
Van Eron, who has taught her methods to organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank, says it’s in our nature to make assumptions based on limited data. During highly emotional conversations, when the brain’s amygdala system is activated, we have a limited capacity to see the bigger picture or seek out areas of mutual agreement. “When we sit in judgment we don’t see other options or solutions,” Van Eron says. For example, it’s easy for us to think someone is wrong simply because they support a different political party than we do, advocate or reject gun control or because of their position on abortion. “We have to learn to notice the signals that push us into this judgment state, such as the tightening of our stomachs or a voice in our heads, and force ourselves to stop, step back and shift into a more open-minded state,” Van Eron says.
While it’s important to have empathy for, and understanding of, others’ beliefs, it doesn’t mean acquiescing to their viewpoints, Van Eron says. “When we give empathy it doesn’t mean we agree,” she says. “It simply means we’ve listened closely to and we understood the other person’s point of view. By doing that, the other party naturally becomes more interested in what you have to say.”
Facts Aren’t What They Used to Be
Another factor driving growing divides is a conviction that by simply employing enough data, statistics or shrewd arguments, we can get others to see the error of their ways and join our side. But those appeals bump up against a hard reality, experts say.
“When it comes to strongly-held beliefs, research shows it is very rare to get people to change their minds,” says Jesse Scinto, an active Toastmaster and associate director of curriculum development in strategic communications at Columbia University in New York City.
A joint study by University of Michigan and Georgia State University sought to understand how effective facts are at swaying belief systems. The study focused on documented misconceptions that prevail around political views, and addressed the question: Could blatantly false or unsubstantiated beliefs be corrected with an objective communication of the truth? The research came to an eye-opening conclusion: When people believe something very strongly, the exposure to contradictory information—even if that information is proven to be true by impartial sources—can actually reinforce their existing belief system, even if those beliefs are incorrect.
“People will go to great lengths to avoid the cognitive dissonance created when their beliefs don’t seem to jibe with the facts,” says Jim Endicott, president of Distinction Communication in Newberg, Oregon, a presentation skills coaching firm.
David Livermore, president of the Cultural Intelligence Center in Holt, Michigan, and an expert in cross-cultural communication, says that confirmation bias, or our tendency to look for and favor information that confirms what we already think, also contributes to today’s divisive environments. “We tend to scour social media, the news and conversations for confirmation of what we already believe and ignore any information to the contrary,” Livermore says.
Seeking Common Ground
How then do we approach situations where relating more effectively to—or influencing—others is the goal, but we know our counterparts hold opposing views? Endicott says success starts by setting the right expectations.
People have what psychologists call a “latitude of acceptance” or willingness to consider and accept different viewpoints. Let’s say, for example, a “1” might represent a conservative mindset and “10” a liberal belief system. “Your ability to influence someone else’s thinking can be greatly impaired if you attempt to move them too far along that scale,” Endicott says. “If you try to move someone from a 9 to a 2 it likely won’t happen. But it might be possible to move them from a 9 to a 7. People will sometimes consider a change in thinking if your goal is to move them incrementally along a belief system.” In baseball parlance, your odds of success grow if you seek to hit a single or double with audiences rather than a home run.
Scinto says seeking out shared values also can help in these scenarios. “Instead of stating your own point of view, start with something you presume your audience might agree with,” he says. For example, if the topic is the environment, rather than beginning with a focus on deforestation practices, you might address the future of next generations. “The shared value of our children’s and grandchildren’s futures would be an entry point to the discussion,” Scinto says.
Humor and Storytelling as Bridge Builders
Humor also can help people find common ground and decrease the tension that arises around disagreement or division, says Judy Carter, an author, speaker and coach who’s also a stand-up comedian. Carter often speaks to groups that she knows likely don’t share her politics or some of her belief systems.
“It doesn’t matter your politics, religious beliefs, cultural identity or sexual orientation, we all have universal things in common,” says Carter. “Those might be things like stress, concerns about our families or financial issues, and finding humor in those situations can build bridges that connect us.”
Carter says the simple act of being interested in and respectful of others goes a long way toward creating more civil and productive conversations.
“When I stop being angry and just focus on listening, and my intent purely is to understand the other person without trying to change them, I find magic often happens,” says Carter. “The question we have to ask ourselves is do we want to be right or do we want to connect with other people? Do we need everyone in our lives to think and believe exactly like we do, or do we want to reach out, learn about and connect with those who are different from us?”
In situations where persuading others with different views is the end-game—be it a sales situation in the workplace or as the goal of a Toastmasters speech—experts say we’re best served by appealing to the right side rather than left side of audiences’ brains. Use of data and statistics is processed by the left brain. “The problem with the left brain is that it’s the most defense-intensive and where people tend to dig in their heels more,” Endicott says. Better to use strategies like storytelling that target the right brain, he says. “The best stories are not right or wrong, they are simply recounting an experience or moment of transformation and letting listeners draw their own conclusions. Stories also reside in long-term memory.”
“Instead of stating your own point of view, start with something you presume your audience might agree with.”— JESSE SCINTO
There’s also the challenge of how to respond appropriately to offensive statements made online or in person. Some believe it’s better to remain silent and avoid escalating a conflict by speaking up. But experts say there is a cost to such avoidance. Expressing your own view is essential, Scinto says, because if you don’t, others might assume you agree with them. Not speaking up also deprives those who’ve said something considered inflammatory a chance to make things right.
Avoid labeling what others have said and instead talk about your own reaction to the offensive comment, Scinto suggests. “Just like in a good evaluation of a Toastmasters speech, focus on using the ‘I’ word,” he says. “You might say, ‘I’m uncomfortable with the use of that word or phrase’ rather than labeling what the other person has said or done.”
Communicating Across Cultures
The risks of communication going awry are amplified when we interact with those from other cultures, Livermore says, given the different norms and behaviors practiced around the globe. The time-honored advice of striving to see from another’s eyes can pay big dividends in these interactions.
“Perhaps the greatest test of your cultural intelligence (CQ) is seeing whether you can take on the perspective of someone who exercises low CQ,” Livermore writes. “Good intentions don’t eradicate inappropriate behavior. But consideration of the intent is required before figuring out how to respond.”
Livermore says one of the biggest impediments to communicating constructively across cultures is use of the “single story,” which refers to viewing those from different countries or backgrounds in one-dimensional ways. He says the idea comes from a TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, where she says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete. They make the one story become the only story.”
Says Livermore: “All of us are more complicated than a single story based on where we’re from, how we voted or the color of our skin. Challenge any attempts at reducing an individual or a group to a single story.”
Role of Body Language
How we use body language, vocal tone and eye contact also contributes to the civility or acrimony of our in-person conversations. “Strive for an open body posture with hands open, head and shoulders back, good eye contact and an appropriate tone,” says Endicott.
Scinto says that while it’s important to monitor your body language, there is danger in doing so at the expense of concealing true feelings. “Trying to bottle up our true beliefs often doesn’t work, because audiences can sense our feelings through our body language,” he says. “When you’re speaking from your heart your body language naturally conforms to that. But when you try to cover up what’s inside, body language becomes misaligned with feelings.”
In the end, experts say we all should ponder this fundamental question when interacting with those who have different belief systems: Is it more important to be right or to dig a little deeper to find the common ground that can help us develop a better understanding of why those with opposing views think, believe and act the way they do?
“There is so much that can divide us all, but as Toastmasters part of our job is to be ambassadors of inspiration and unity,” Carter says. “We should seek to connect with all of the audiences of our lives, not simply to be right. Our job is to break down walls and try to lead others gently down the path toward understanding and acceptance.”
Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a frequent contributor to the Toastmaster magazine.