Several years ago my good friend Joan Blades co-founded a national nonprofit group called Living Room Conversations, or LRC, with the explicit goal of improving the level and quality of social discourse around public policy issues.
Joan, like many Americans across the political spectrum, is deeply concerned about the apparent inability (and unwillingness) of people with differing political views to talk to each other – and more importantly, to listen to each other. We all know how “broken” the US Congress is; its national approval ratings have never been lower.
But Living Room Conversations isn’t trying to reform Congress (except through grass roots public pressure); it is a movement aimed at bringing “ordinary” people holding different basic views together in their own living rooms to explore issues such as voting rights, prison reform, immigration, tax policies, health care, the Middle East, and other major issues that seem to divide us from our neighbors – and yet are fundamentally important to our collective futures on this planet.
In contrast, my professional focus is on conversations at work, and how they affect organizational performance and the workplace experience for individuals and teams.
As important as I believe corporate conversations are, they are clearly not as critical as Joan’s living room conversations.
However, because conversations on major political and environmental issues can be so challenging, Joan and her colleagues in the LRC movement have identified a small set of core principles that they have learned increase the likelihood that those conversations will be civil, constructive, and meaningful.
I believe those principles are just as valid for my narrower focus on changing corporate conversations, so I have studied them closely and want to share them with you in the belief that adapting them to the workplace will enhance the quality of those conversations as well
Here, in brief, are the six primary guidelines that the LRC movement has articulated (taken directly from the LRC website):
Be Curious and Open to Learning
Listen to and be open to hearing all points of view. Maintain an attitude of exploration and learning. Conversation is as much about listening as it is about talking.
Show Respect and Suspend Judgment
Human beings tend to judge one another, do your best not to. Setting judgments aside will better enable you to learn from others and help them feel respected and appreciated.
Look for Common Ground
In this conversation, we look for what we agree on and simply appreciate that we will disagree on some beliefs and opinions.
Be Authentic and Welcome that from Others
Share what’s important to you. Speak authentically from your personal and heartfelt experience. Be considerate to others who are doing the same.
Be Purposeful and to the Point
Notice if what you are conveying is or is not “on purpose” to the question at hand. Notice if you are making the same point more than once.
Own and Guide the Conversation
Take responsibility for the quality of your participation and the quality of the conversation by noticing what’s happening and actively support getting yourself and others back “on purpose” when needed.
In my humble opinion, those are powerful guidelines for listening, learning, and building productive relationships even with people you disagree with. They are certainly easier said than done, but they serve to highlight what’s possible.
And I can vouch for the fact that they work. Last year my wife and I, with Joan’s active support, convened a series of Living Room Conversations in our local community. We invited six neighbors with a wide range of political views to meet in our own living room for several extended conversations about issues we all care about.
While our experience was not an unqualified success and eventually withered away after about four two-hour sessions, we did learn a great deal about each other and the issues we explored together.
I believe it is fair to say that the eight of us discovered we actually hold a number of common views, including a deep frustration at how divided the country has become, along with an equally deep respect for our system of governance in spite of its shortcomings.
Clearly we have different beliefs about what needs to change, but most us (I think) now understand how each of us arrived at our personal beliefs, and we respect those beliefs even when we disagree with them (you can read a more detailed description of our LRC experience on the Living Room Conversations blog, at this link).
For me, that is a powerful lesson in the value of civil discourse. And even more importantly it reminded me once again about the power of respectful listening. I’d be thrilled if more corporate conversations were that successful. As much as I value consensus, I value respect for other points of view even more.