The recent shooting rampage at the ballpark in Alexandria, Virginia, puts a harsh, but necessary, spotlight on the lengths to which some will go in responding to those with whom they disagree. While it is normal to have differences of opinion, when those differences lead to animosity or hatred, it is time to step back and look for better ways to process our differences.
Differing viewpoints occur in virtually every societal group, including businesses and families. Too often, companies fail due to infighting among key stakeholders. Similarly, marriages and families are often destroyed by the inability of family members to effectively deal with their differences.
The initial question here is, “How should we view diversity?”
On the surface, diversity of opinions, attitudes, behaviors and beliefs may appear to be the root cause of most problems. If we could just come together around one philosophy, one strategy, one set of operating premises, all this strife would evaporate. With this as our goal perhaps we should become uniformly intolerant of diversity!
And perhaps that is where we are today. Too many are intolerant of the diverse views of others. Societally, many have arrived at the attitude that “we are right—and everyone who believes differently is wrong.”
Whether in a political, business or family context, I suggest that we table the “content” of our rightness for a bit in order to consider revisions to the “process” whereby we engage with those who have a viewpoint different from our own.
An effective process for dealing with someone who sees things differently follows:
- Anticipate that the strong feelings of the other party mirror our own, and that their strong feelings are likely to be primed for a hair-trigger reaction to our viewpoints. If we plow right into a content debate, the likelihood of a “fight or flight” response is quite high. For this reason, we must first resolve to address the process to be followed with our counterpart before moving into a discussion of our respective content
- Both parties should recognize the negative and positive mathematics of diverse opinions.
The negative mathematics are basically:
1 minus 1 = zero (or a negative number)
When we deny legitimacy to an opposing viewpoint by shouting it down or showing a lack of respect for the person asserting it, we inspire similar responses to our own ideas. The outcome: at best, we emerge with nothing; at worst, we end up with anger and even hatred.
The positive mathematics of diversity occur when we open our minds to other viewpoints:
1 plus 1 = 3, 4, or maybe even 10!
By truly considering the other party’s point of view, we create the real possibility of synergy. We get outside our own box, while inviting our counterpart to do likewise, thereby enhancing the likelihood of a mutually agreeable solution.
Stephen R. Covey referred to this as “seeking to understand before being understood.” To enjoy the benefits of the positive mathematics of diversity, we should commit ourselves to listening and learning the merits of our counterpart—and invite them to allow us that opportunity as well when content discussion ensues.
- Begin with healthy, positive assumptions about the other party. Assume that they have reasonable motives, given their perspective. Rarely are they evil; they are just different. Strive to view them as someone with value that you need to discover. Invite your counterpart to view you similarly.
- Define the desired outcomes for both yourself and the other party. Move from diametrically opposed “positions” and instead brainstorm ways to achieve “common interests.” Roger Fisher and William Ury, authors of the classic book on effective negotiation, “Getting to Yes,” have found this to be an essential technique in overcoming differences and moving to collaborative decisions. One common interest for almost any discussion of differences should be to emerge as friends, capable of working together.
- Resolve to finish with a mutual action plan. What will each of you do to move forward in a unified way? Both parties should emerge with specific commitments to action. One-sided resolutions seldom are win-win.
- Redefine in your mind (and in the mind of your counterpart, if possible) what winning is. It isn’t to beat the other party; rather it is to discover solutions that are acceptable to both of you.
This process has often proven effective—when both parties agree to it. When leaders follow this process, they can reduce the venom that seems to so often greet divergent viewpoints on both sides of any issue.
By engaging with others first on process, we will improve the civility of our dialogue, increase our appreciation of the value of diversity, and enjoy greater unity as we work together.
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.