Isolation can make us less tolerant of other people’s viewpoints, so what happens when that intolerance begins to impact our work relationships?
In 1951, American-German philosopher Hannah Adrendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism. A Jewish refugee herself, Adrendt wanted to understand what caused the rise of intolerance in her home country and she came to a surprising conclusion – the biggest factor was loneliness.
Thankfully humans are somewhat better at managing emotions compared to animals. Most of us will use our words before resorting to violence, but as 2020 draws to a close we are feeling more tired and irritable than ever and our tolerance for opposing ideas wears thin.
Rhonda Brighton-Hall FCPHR, founder and CEO of mwah (making work absolutely human), says even the most outgoing people are feeling the strain.
“I was in a meeting recently where someone who is usually a lovely person, a good example of a great guy, just snapped at someone in the meeting because he thought they were speaking over him. That’s really unusual behaviour for this person,” says Brighton-Hall.
On top of feeling lonely, tired and mentally drained, we’re in one of the most politically polarising moments in history. Brighton-Hall says this is all leading to an ongoing feeling of outrage and, unsurprisingly, these feelings can spill into the workplace.
So is there a way to disagree with colleagues without ruining work relationships? Brighton-Hall shares her three best tips for arguing at work.
Dialogue, not hostility
Workplace conflict can have severe negative impacts if not handled correctly. Work conflict has been linked to decreased productivity, project failure, absenteeism, and increased turnover.
“If you find you’re trying to defend your point of view, don’t just come in saying “here’s my opinion” make sure you understand what they’re saying before you respond,” says Brighton-Hall.
Isolation has given us time to sit comfortably with our own opinions. As our social circle narrows to members of our household, immediate team members and those who can be bothered ‘to Zoom’, we have fewer opportunities for those opinions to be challenged.
Even as Australia slowly comes out of lockdown, it’s likely that the first people we try to catch up with are like-minded and only solidify our stances on certain issues. This can make it particularly jarring when someone suddenly disagrees with you.
However, Brighton-Hall says taking a moment to see the other person’s point of view is going to reduce the risk of irrevocably harming your relationship with that person.
“Always start with something that shows you’ve listened. That will immediately open up the conversation.”
Brighton-Hall says you don’t need to pretend you agree with them to show you have listened and understood. In fact, if you find their opinion confronting it might be worth telling them and asking for an explanation.
“Even if it’s something really wild, you can say, ‘tell me how you got to that conclusion’. It just shows the other person you respect your relationship with them even if you disagree,” she says.
Pick your battles
“Remember, you don’t have to win every debate.”
Brighton-Hall says some arguments aren’t worth having at work so knowing when to walk away is important.
“If someone says something that you know is fundamentally wrong, you don’t need to say ‘let me bury you in 10,015 articles’ or ‘here’s the latest news from whatever source’ you can pause and just leave that argument for another day,” she says.
It might take several conversations until you’re both listening to each other but the goal is to get to that place, not necessarily to win the argument.
“When you come at someone like, ‘you’re wrong I’m right and I’m going to show you over the next 10 minutes’ you’re not having a discussion you’re just going to get them riled up.
“Once you get someone riled up the argument can blow out and you’re not just discussing the original issue, you end up arguing about everything.”
Brighton-Hall says arguing over video calls can be particularly difficult as there is the risk of accidentally cutting people off or speaking over each other and we can’t see their body language to know when it’s an accident.
“It can make conversations very unnatural as you’re trying to say your piece quickly and sometimes you might oversimplify things or come across more polarising so we really need to consider that when arguing.”
If you are under pressure, it might be worth dropping the argument until you can see them in person or have more time to talk.
Resolve the issue
Although certain arguments are not worth having at work, Brighton-Hall doesn’t suggest dropping the issue altogether without some kind of resolution.
“In some teams when there is one person who disagrees with everyone else the solution is often to just move them to another team. But if you’re talking about big world issues then it doesn’t matter where you move them, someone else will be offended.”
Brighton-Hall says as HR you may need to ask this person to keep that particular opinion out of the workplace.
“You might say ‘here we treat each other with respect. And we give each other space to be ourselves. And you might have a personal opinion, but can’t bring that one to work’.”
If the issue is less polarising but has left people upset, she says you still need to address the route of the problem.
“Don’t leave it hanging. Don’t think ‘I’m never going to mention that again’ or ‘we’ll get over it’ because it can just leave a festering wound.”
If you’re a third party to an argument or participated in an extremely tense meeting, Brighton-Hall says it is worth offering to stick around to defuse the situation.
“Just make it casual like, ‘who’s happy to stay on the Zoom or stay and chat’ or ‘who wants to go get coffee’. Just give a little bit of air, a little bit of space.
“There are so many people who need a hand at the moment or are in a bad spot and we can’t keep loading our pain on to other people. We need to be conscious that we’re in a very unique environment at the moment where we need to double down on caring and kindness.”
Resolving conflict in the workplace is not always easy. AHRI’s short course on Conflict and Mediation will help you improve your skills to manage conflict effectively.