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  • Dr. Kim Stephens

Calling for a return to civility in the workplace

Updated: Nov 13, 2019


Over the past six months, I have seen a tremendous uptick in my requests for “Civility in the Workplace” seminars or workshops. There is an urgency expressed that can almost be described as desperation. CEOs, HR and Learning Professionals are trying to ratchet down the strong, one-sided rhetoric that has replaced healthy discussions and disagreements. Work conflict is now following the example set in politics of no compromise, no negotiation, and definitely no willingness to hear a different perspective contrary to their own.


In my work on implicit bias and inclusion training, I stress the importance of transformational conversation – a conversation between two or more people who could be categorized as having different social identity characteristics that results in a transformation in perspective. I use these transformational conversations as a tool to ensure participants understand the perspective of another person. The key is to be able to step outside yourself and really struggle to see the point of view of someone whom you perceive as different. I use the word struggle intentionally. The ability to really listen without coming up with your own arguments against what the person is saying (counterpoints), to think about what you want to say next, or to not just shut down completely is difficult. It’s a constant struggle within your brain to make sure you are fully present in System 2 thinking, being very conscious. This is the only way to ensure your implicit biases (unconscious) are not overtaking the conversation. Our implicit biases (preferences) will have us struggling with focusing in on only the points that reinforce our own arguments (confirmation bias), ones that reaffirm that the two of us have nothing in common (similarity bias), or even slipping into dismissing the other point of view because this person is not part of our group, so he/she couldn’t possibly understand (ingroup/outgroup bias). 


The overriding factor is all of these examples is the need to listen with curiosity. You have to decide at the onset of the discussion that you will fully focus on the other person’s perspective. You will need to eliminate distractions and stay emotionally neutral. This will require empathy – a shift from judgment to understanding. You cannot shout the other person down, refuse to listen, or even ridicule his/her speech.  


This does not mean you have to be in agreement, but you do have to give the other person equal airtime. After the other person has expressed his/her opinion, you can calmly tell them where you differ or even better, where you are on similar terms. If this is a work decision and there is no middle ground, invite a neutral party to give feedback. 


If this is strictly a personal discussion, agree to disagree. There does not have to be a winner in every discussion. We are social creatures, so we naturally seek out the company of other humans. Unfortunately, we have been taught to not have conversations about two potentially volatile topics: politics and religion. This censoring of topics has left us without a framework for having these discussions. Consequently, we shift to defensive rhetoric when our views are challenged.   


So, here’s your framework for handling a volatile conversation:


1) Eliminate distractions. Make sure you are not allowing your System 1 thinking (made up your implicit biases) to be in charge. That means no multi-tasking.

2) Really listen. Don’t think about your counterpoints or dismiss what the person is saying out of hand.

3) Employ empathy. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and understand the motivation behind his/her viewpoint.

4) Be respectful. Just because you don’t agree with someone does not give you the right to negate or rudely dismiss his/her point of view.

5) Share your perspective. If you have followed point 3, you should have empathy flowing between you and the other person. This is a good opportunity to share your opinion without demanding the other person adopt your perspective.

6) Agree to disagree. If you have been following each step, each of you has now engaged in a transformational conversation. Agreement is not important. Hopefully, you have considered a different viewpoint, and that’s all that is necessary. 

7) Part amicably. Just because you do not agree with someone, that does not mean you should be uncivil. Thank the person for sharing and leave an opportunity for follow-up.  


Again, I am not saying this is easy. It will be a struggle at first. Disagreements are naturally going to happen in our multi-connected world. However, we don’t have to allow every disagreement to escalate to a war of words.


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