Politics … a forbidden topic in many relationships, and one that can easily put a stop to new relationships. And yet, the topic is a gold mine for practicing one of the most important skills in business and life. A skill that, when strengthened, not only improves relationships, but also your results.
But before we get into that, just a little backstory…
Generosity of a Stranger Leads to A Difference of Political Opinions
Soon after arriving back to the shelter off the Appalachian Trail, where our food bag (which we had left hanging on the bear pole during our day hike) was stolen, I sat across the picnic table from George, a Vietnam vet, who had given us some food to tide us over.
Moments after we sat down to enjoy some of the food he graciously gave to us, I found myself in an unexpected political conversation.
George pulled out his phone and showed me a meme making fun of the president he dislikes most. As he showed me this meme, he got agitated as he talked about what was keeping our country from becoming great again.
His tone came across as “I’m going to set all you naysayers straight.”
Curious, I leaned in… “Tell me more about why you like (his pick) so much?”
As he talked, my curiosity increased. I sincerely did not understand his thought process, or where he was getting his data. Rather than worry about the details of his selection, I asked more questions.
Finding Meaning Behind Opinions
“What does it mean to have our country be great again?” I asked.
The more I listened, the more I understood the fears beneath his choice. As he spoke about how challenging it is for him to see his children struggle to raise his grandchildren, the more I understood where he was coming from.
Back when he was raising his family, his salary was enough to provide for them, and his wife stayed home and tended to their children. “In my youth, both parents didn’t have to work to get by. A man could work an honest job and make enough money to take care of his family,” he said. “Now, I watch my children struggling and know it doesn’t have to be that way.”
In his mind, a particular president could make everything go back to the way it used to be. Who am I to judge, especially during a pandemic, when all I want is to go back to the way (some) things were. (A hug, anyone?)
Witnessing the depth of his fears, I began to see why he latched onto one president’s message.
Pushing Your Beliefs Prevents Connection
Rather than push my ideas onto him – which he might just receive as propaganda, I fought hard to simply listen to his political opinions. When I say “listen,” I mean the kind that challenges me to quiet my opinions long enough to hear his, and to understand what’s behind them.
I wanted to cut him off and share my own opinions more than you can imagine. Yet, I knew this could be a learning moment for me, if I could just let go of needing to be right. Working hard to hear what he was saying helped me fight my initial reactions. My innate political expressions were the ones telling me that I needed to, at the very least, punch some holes in his logic.
We all have fears and hopes. None of our hopes or fears are right or wrong, and when we can practice open curiosity and authentic listening, we bless ourselves with the possibility of learning, deepening relationships, and connecting.
Prioritizing Connection Over Opinions or Politics
Here’s how I am practicing authentic listening, especially when I don’t agree with what someone else is saying, and even more especially in the midst of this pandemic and political climate:
- Notice irritation arise.
- Work at remembering that no one is “right” or “wrong”… we just have different hopes and fears.
- Work at remembering that perspective is based on life experience, and every one of us is doing the best we can with the information and resources we have.
- Get curious… what do they believe? Why? What are their fears and hopes? How can I relate?
- Hear my opinions (righteousness) aching to spill out.
- Refocus on listening by repeating back what I’m hearing in an open and curious manner.
- Try to make sense of what they are saying.
- Remember that if they want to hear my perspective, they will ask. Then, if they do ask, try not to get defensive when they respond to my perspective… it’s not easy!
- Thank them for sharing with me.
We may have differing opinions, but we can always connect through our vulnerabilities, and seek to understand and care for each other. The positive impact of this kind of listening is longer lasting than any election cycle.
When practiced in a business setting, you can expect to see increased trust, leading to stronger relationships, increased collaboration, and even joy in your work.
Recently in the news, I’ve seen how Coinbase is not allowing political discussions in the workplace. In fact, they’re gone so far as to offer their employees a severance package if they feel the need to have political conversations. While this election cycle is certainly ripe with challenges, this level of reaction only execrates our inability to engage effectively in difficult conversations.
We don’t have to agree to have a conversation, but we do have to have difficult conversations to get better at them. In fact, difficult conversations are at the heart of depth in trust, which leads to engaged employees, improved morale, get things done faster, building better teams, enhancing managers and leaders effectiveness; improving customer service, winning new customers, closing more sales, increasing job satisfaction and getting customers and employees singing your praises.
This election cycle is an excellent opportunity for the leadership at Coinbase to step up and provide skills (and to learn through your demonstration) needed to respectfully engage in difficult conversations. There is no better time in the history of the world to get better at the #1 skill in leadership: listening.
Here’s to Your Greatness,
Misti Burmeister has been solving people problems and empowering leaders for nearly 20 years, increasing engagement and productivity across generations. Help your team reach its highest potential at https://MistiBurmeister.com