Note: This piece was originally published on September 23, 2014 at business and leadership blog Switch and Shift. It’s a great resource for leadership topics and discussion about how we can improve the human side of how we do business. Be sure to check out some of the posts and articles from the other contributors there.
Great workplace environments have many common characteristics. But almost all of them come back to the same common denominator… respect. Great colleagues and business leaders treat people with respect. Period. Full Stop.
And one of the most fundamental demonstrations of respect is the ability to listen to what others have to say, without interrupting them, without judgment, and without disdain. If we want to be respectful of the people we work with, we have to, first and foremost, be willing to listen to their opinion and treat that opinion with respect… even if it differs from our own.
The 21st century world has become, at least here in the United States, a place where we all do lots of speaking and not a lot of listening; where we try to shout louder than the person next to us; where we demonize those with contrary opinions; where we characterize those with polar opposite opinions as “bad people.” And the unfortunate outcome is that we have become less willing, or able, to communicate with people who disagree with us. We are all gravitating more and more to people who think the same way we do. That may feel good, but it actually doesn’t accomplish much.
Some of you may think I am simply writing about the state of politics in the United States today. I am not. I am writing about the way we communicate through social media, the way we deal with debate in the workplace, the way we are afraid to discuss serious issues at dinner parties, the way our news is delivered to us, and, yes, the way our politicians handle their differences. This problem is not exclusively limited to those in Washington. We are all being affected by a growing sense of “speak more, listen less, and attack anyone who disagrees with you.”
It is a simple concept: one of our most effective ways of improving the human condition, at work and everywhere, is through communication, sharing of ideas, discussion, debate, and conversation. And when we can’t, or won’t, converse, we deny ourselves one of our greatest gifts.
I have attended several dinner parties over the last month, and at each one, I attempted to address this topic specifically. I wanted to talk about how to disagree without being disagreeable. I wanted to discuss how people of opposing views should be able to communicate better. And before I could even get to the heart of the discussion, I was given the clear message (through facial expression in one case, and through a nudge under the table from a close friend in another) to change the subject. Anything that comes within several zip codes of politics is not to be discussed. That was the clear message. I didn’t want to talk about politics. I wanted to talk about our society, and our inability to communicate with each other. But the conversation was not allowed to go anywhere.
How are we supposed to solve problems if no one is allowed to discuss?
I am not suggesting that we should not have opinions. I am not suggesting that we each should compromise our principles, and water down our beliefs. I am simple saying that having opinions and principles should not require we attack and then retreat from each other, just because our opinions and principles differ. We have serious issues to deal with. And the best way to deal with them is to be able to have real conversation.
Respect for others should not be something limited to only one part of our lives. At home, at work, at the dinner party, in the gym, we should be ready to treat other people with respect – and not just the people who agree with us. And respect includes the willingness to hear other opinions without judgment.
I wish the people in Washington DC were better able to discuss differences of opinion, and get some real dialogue going. And I wish you and I could as well.
At The Latimer Group, we believe that successful teams are built on honesty, open communication, and collaboration. For more on team building and team communication, look for Dean Brenner’s book, Sharing the Sandbox: Building and Leading Great Teams in the 21st Century, on sale now.