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How to Have Difficult Conversations at Work: Strategies for Success

Feb 10, 2023
Two women having a conversation, surrounded by two podiums.


One of the modules inside my DEI Leadership Academy was designed to give individuals the skills to respond appropriately when they are called a racist, a sexist, or any other name they find offensive.

Invariably, whenever this happens, our first instinct is to defend ourselves, especially if the accusation is not true. This inevitably puts us in debate mode, and, with that, our goal immediately switches to proving the accuser wrong.

In the seven-step framework I teach, though, I encourage my clients to react in a way that starts a productive dialogue. That is because the primary purpose of a dialogue is to help us work together to find a mutual understanding.

Because the reality is, we don’t know the accuser’s history, pain, and the circumstances that led to that moment. We only know our own perspective and the parable below will illustrate my point.


The Elephant and the Blind Men Parable

This parable originated in the Indian subcontinent, and it has been widely circulated.

It is centered around a group of blind men who had never come in contact with an elephant but ended up learning what an elephant was by touching various parts of the elephant such as the side, the tusk, the tail, etc.

They then proceeded to describe the elephant, albeit from their limited experience. Needless to say, there was no agreement on what the elephant actually looked like.

The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, "It’s a snake.”

The one whose hand touched the elephant’s ear, said, “It’s a fan.”

The individual whose hand was upon the elephant’s leg, said, “This is a tree trunk,” while the one who placed his hand on the side of the elephant concluded that “it was a wall.”

Finally, the one who felt the elephant’s tail was certain he was dealing with a rope.

Each blind man was touching a different part of the elephant's body--but only one part.

They then proceeded to describe the elephant from their limited perspective, which ended up being very different from each other.

The moral of this parable is that different people can have distinctly different perceptions of the same thing. We know our own truth, but we often forget our truth is limited and based on our own unique experiences.

It is important to recognize somebody else’s perspective and that each of us has a unique worldview based on our personal experiences, language, and culture.


Developing the Ability to Have Uncomfortable Conversations

We need to find some compassion within ourselves and try to understand somebody else’s perspective—even when we feel hurt and offended.

In situations like this, it is not about proving who is right or who is wrong. It is about having the courage, despite our fear and discomfort, to listen and learn about someone else’s perspective.

And the only mode of conversation that allows for this to happen is dialogue.

Dialogue is a vastly different form of conversation than most of us are used to.

In this culture, it seems like debate is the most common form of communication between people who disagree. In fact, students learn to debate while in school.

Debate is about recognizing fallacies and responding to them appropriately. Debate is about winning the argument by proving the other person wrong.


Embracing the Nature of Dialogue

Dialogue, on the other hand, is not about winning. Instead, the goal of dialogue is to add to a common pool of knowledge.

It allows us to achieve a deeper understanding of our differences and creates an opportunity for learning and growth.

In the parable described above, each person thought they knew the whole story about the elephant by experiencing only their part of the elephant. It was only after they shared their part of the picture that they could understand reality more completely.

A dialogue space is about creating opportunities for different perspectives to be shared. It is about listening to different perspectives and lived experiences so we can expand our understanding of the other.

It is an opportunity to add to the common pool of knowledge and to discover that there are other truths. It assumes that many people have the answer and that only together we can find the solution.

Lastly, dialogue is also about collaboration and working together to achieve a collective understanding. It is not about proving the other person is wrong or that you have the right answer. It is about listening deeply so both parties can discover new truths.



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