Tis (Always) the Season: From Entrenched Positions to Rich Connections

Michelle takes the pen on re-finding connection and community, in the workplace and in the world


As we enter the autumn and the holiday season, I am finding myself craving community and connection, especially after the isolation of the last few years and with kids increasingly independent.


When I think about joining new communities, however, I feel myself focusing on all of the ways I don’t quite fit with this group or that group. I’m not a runner, or I’m older, or I’m younger, or I want to try out a faith community but my beliefs don’t exactly align. It’s interesting how much I can separate myself from care by focusing on difference rather than letting down my guard and throwing myself with abandon into relationship.


Then I reflect on the places where differences feel defining, even positional. My sisters and mom and I have talked every other Sunday since COVID began. But with the four of us deeply divided ideologically, I enter those conversations with more trepidation when election results are near.


Even at work, where I am fortunate to be surrounded by teammates and clients I adore, every now and then we get into a tussle. This usually isn’t an ideological values divide. But sometimes other values (e.g., innovation versus stability, what level of risk is worth taking, or the best path of growth) can polarize us. Emotions are heightened and we each feel entrenched in our rightness until a good conversation (or sometimes many) brings us back to connection.


In this time of year - where political polarization is heightened, time with family is right around the corner, and we are rebuilding the fabric of our work lives, what does it look like to move from positions to connections?


We explored the advice of experts in dialogue across political and racial lines, and our favorite resources on conversational skills, to curate tips for you to bring greater connection, grace and care to your holiday tables - and your conference tables - this season.


THREE CORE BELIEFS

Before jumping to concrete suggestions, there are a few guiding beliefs that help us in these moments. You’ll notice that ultimately our goal is a shift toward being in connection and community, rather than proving and “winning.”


We all find ourselves caught at times in what Daniel Goleman calls as an “emotional hijack,” a place where our emotions are heightened and we are in a reactive loop rather than living from our best selves. From these places of blame, frustration, and hurt saying the right words can’t shift relationships because others still feel our negativity. Start with grounding in these core beliefs to get yourself right.


Belief 1: Others’ stories and points of view helps us see a more complete version of the truth.

As humans, our perspectives are naturally shaped by our own lived experiences and those closest to us. In my 20s I was ambivalent about Affordable Health Care until a chronic illness shattered my father’s life and financial security. For many of us, the intellectual debate about remote work came into stark reality in 2020. Suddenly we experienced both the freedom of not commuting and “dressing for work,” and the pain of disconnection with teams and juggling the two parts of our lives on the same screen.


These deeply felt and painful stories became part of what Jennifer Tardy calls our “LEQ - LIved Experience Intelligence Quotient.” From a distance the aperture of our minds’ perspective is small. Answers seem simple and the person on the opposite side of an issue seems misguided at best and morally off-base at worst.


All that changes when you tune into their perspective and see them up close. Our understanding of the issues are richer and more nuanced, and the people that hold perspectives have real cares that understandably matter.


Belief 2: We can be in satisfying relationships with people who are different from us, and find common ground.

When the people we identify with most closely - our children, our parents, our boss at work - hold views we feel are “wrong” the desire to change them (or disconnect from them) can feel particularly strong.


Braver Angels, in their Skills for Bridging the Divide workshop, suggests we step away from the goal of changing others’ core attitudes and beliefs. In our workplaces, it helps us to remember that diversity of thought (as well as identities and lived experiences) makes our work better and our culture stronger. That means working hard on our team to appreciate the geniuses others bring that are different from our own.


In family relationships, Braver Angels founder Bill Doherty reminds us that “they are not you [and] do not have to change for you to feel OK.” This is about differentiation, he explains, when we as adults can “calmly [hold our] own views, listen to others and live with differences without cutting off important relationships.”


When practicing “red/blue” conversations in their workshop, I was astounded at how much common ground existed across our political lines in our core beliefs about tricky issues like immigration and gun control. And in our own work with clients on building cultures of belonging for all identities, we have treasured the “ohhhh!” moments where pinches in workplace relationships begin to release as people bring curiosity and cultural competence to the places of tension - and emerge feeling more understood and optimistic. (See further information here to see more about how we work.)


Belief 3: Our backstories don’t have to define our future stories.

As humans, we all carry scars - often around experiences of not feeling seen, or valued, or feeling like we matter. As adults, our work is to unwind those stories so we can restart - leaving space for others to grow, and our relationships to hold new possibility.

  • We have to first see and let go of the narratives we are holding about the other person, ourselves, and the world that leaves us stuck. Look for familiar ones like:

  • At work - “you don’t value our work,” “you just want it done your way,” “you don’t get it,” “you are just out for yourself” or “no one understands”

  • With family - “you never understood me,” “you’re not the boss of me,” “you don’t care about anyone else,” “you don’t respect me” or “you make poor choices”

What others do you see? How much is possible from that limiting view?

  • Then, we can explore what we want for ourselves , the other person and the relationship. Do you value the relationship and want it to be better? Do you wish they knew how you have grown? Do you hope you can re-set things and start over?


Each moment is an opportunity, and a choice point, for division - or for connection. How can we be the bridges that begin the healing and depolarization we dream of in the world?



STEPS TO A MORE CONNECTED WORLD

We want to start with a thank you to four organizations that inspire us to dream about a more connected, more empathetic world: The Dialogue Company with their Ally Toolkit, Living Room Conversations, Braver Angels and The Weave Institute. These simple steps draw on our learning from all of them.


Is there a “pinch” in a relationship in your life or work - a place you feel disconnected, far apart, even stuck in your positions? Here is a simple guide to help you begin a new story, starting with your next conversation.


Prepare

Before you jump into the conversation, do some reflection to get yourself back to a feeling of grace. Put yourself in their shoes and see their story … reflect on possible reasons a good and reasonable person might have acted the way they act. Consider whether you might have unwittingly contributed to the dynamic you are in together; is it possible it’s not 100% on them?


Consider how power might be at play. How might differences feel especially acute given position or social identity? Working and living across lines of difference is one of the most worthy goals we can hold for our organizations and our country, but it requires us to open up our minds to see things through another’s lens. (We have found tools like Hofstede’s Cultural Compass and Erin Meyer’s Culture Map valuable resources. They help teams explore where their cultures and lived experiences may have them seeing things differently than the person on the other side of the relationship.)


Think about how you can start the conversation in a way that helps them see your care, reflectiveness and desire to understand. “I feel like I have not been my best with you lately, and I want you to know how much I care about this working relationship feeling great for both of us,” or “I know we have had some tense conversations, and I have been reflecting on how much my culture has caused me to shy away from discomfort. I think you have some valid concerns and I would love to better understand them.”


Understand

Remember the goal of a conversation is not changing the person. It’s about building connection, seeing their perspective and reprogramming our backstories with new stories. That requires us to:

  • Ask authentic questions - ones that you are truly willing to hear that answer to. “I’m hoping leadership can see that we are drowning in work. Can you share more about why we are letting people go?” “I realize the coverage I saw on that candidate may be really different that what you have seen. What attracted you about their platform?”

  • Learn more by uncovering the stories behind those views. “I wonder what your experience of management has been like thus far” or “I wonder if you have felt discriminated against yourself with your faith.”

  • Help them feel “gotten” by mirroring back their experience and acknowledging their emotions. “Wow. I hear how long you were separated from your children before you could legally immigrate to America. I can imagine how frustrating it must be when others bypass that process.”


Relate

Relating is about finding that common ground. David Campt, in his White Ally Toolkit Workbook, reminds us that when we are on opposite sides others are armored up expecting us to tell them their thinking is wrong. So they need to hear first where we think they’re right.


There are two ways to do that. The first is “I Concur” - or finding points of agreement. That could see “I am also really upset we didn’t hear families’ voices before making this decision.” The second is to share an “I Confess” story - a story that illustrates how you (at least at one time) saw things from the same perspective. “I also grew up in a family where I heard a lot about immigrants taking over job opportunities. When my father lost his job, our lives were all changed dramatically.”


Expand

By now, we hope you have established that you are a reasonable, curious and open person who genuinely cares about the other as a human and about seeking a more complete version of the truth. This gives you the space to see if they are ready to do the same.


Truth on important issues is complex and we are all seeing through the narrow apertures of our experience. Your goal is to gently expand someone’s existing lens, often by expanding from the points of connection. “While families were not consulted, I know that teachers really weighed in on how this would impact their students. I wonder if we could capture their thinking and check with parents now on what we may have missed.” Or alternatively, “What I learned recently was how much farmers have struggled since the immigration crackdown to find any workers willing to harvest their crops. I wonder if there is a way our farmers can get the labor they need without us feeling like that means a wide open border.”




OUR INVITATION

The world we are living in is tricky. In the past, we may have lived in small communities with many shared experiences. Every day, we now encounter a marvelous array of people in our workplaces and our families who are seeing the world through the lens of their own (very different) experiences. Through our narrow apertures and our Zoom screens, we can easily see the places others seem to be different, wrong, or lacking in care.


Our positions, however, do not define us - and are not fixed.


It is only through letting down our barriers to “otherness,” sharing stories and opening ourselves up to being changed that we will rediscover the possibility of what community can look like. Imagine how much richer our worlds will be when sameness is not the prerequisite for connection.


We believe your teams will be stronger as you lean into these moments of connection. Your relationships will be more fulfilling, and life can be more vibrant when you build bridges, rather than chasms, in your own corner of the world. We hope you’ll dream with us about depolarizing our hearts and our workplaces, and at each moment tilt toward connection.