In the biblical story of Babel, the human race, united by a single language and an aligned vision, begins to build a magnificent tower to reach the heavens. Threatened by this plan, God cancels the work, confusing their speech so they can no longer understand each other, and scattering them to different parts of the world.
Thousands of years later, we live out Babel’s legacy: confused, scattered, and more at odds with each other than ever. The world is engulfed by the horrors of war, political strife and a toxic cocktail of uncertainty and fear. We invalidate, dismiss, criticize and shame those who offer opposing perspectives. We combine hate speech and free speech, experiencing both. As we talk next to each other, passions rise and listening falls.
In the old days, the workplace felt immune, protected by a well-accepted list of things you just don’t talk about at work: politics, religion and sex. Today, thanks in large part to social media, people’s beliefs are no longer hidden. And our ability to navigate these difficult issues is not up to the task. A recent study found that 85% of workers are involved in regular workplace conflict, wasting 2.8 hours a week and costing employers $359 billion a year. As social polarization seeps into work when the world is in conflict, we can only expect that this ‘normal’ conflict in the workplace will increase and further erode our ability to work well together. Evidence? Thirty-seven percent of workers have mentionted changing their opinion of a colleague based on their political beliefs. Polarization at work corrodes trust, interpersonal relationships and performance. When we lose the ability to be kind to each other, we lose a lot. Rudeness it shrinks productivity and expands sick time.
If we can’t even try to listen to each other, the future is grim. We don’t have to agree, but to coexist peacefully and collaborate at work we must be able to respect conflicting perspectives and discuss our differences. As the world crowds into opposing corners, we may feel powerless, but we can at least change the conversation at work. Here are three things you can do to revisit your language, expand your thinking, and turn down the heat.
Choose your words carefully
Words matter. Some of the simplest elements of speech (the ones we rarely think about) have the power to escalate or calm. For example, the word “but” immediately negates what came before. It turns opposition into a competition and creates a strong need to defend one point of view over another. As innocuous as it may seem, “but” is a fighting word, one we use even when we don’t intend to start a fight.
Try “and” instead. “And” connects two ideas, inviting us to consider both at the same time. And it reflects reality: in most cases more than one thing is true. Performance feedback is a simple and familiar example: we are so addicted to the negative, we expect the “but”. Instead of “your performance was great, but you need to be better at responding to emails,” think, “your performance was great, and it would be even better if you improved your email response time.” The first approach diminishes while the second encourages.
Your metaphors also matter. For example, we often describe arguments in terms of war (a battle to be won or lost). The resulting words are combative. What if you framed a disagreement as a dance instead? Your words become a choreographed effort to reach a common outcome, a different kind of victory. Instead of trampling on each other’s ideas, you’ll be watching each other’s toes. Tired transfers to make us lazy and pull us to places we don’t want to go. Controlling your words (and the metaphors that frame them) opens the door to more honest conversations and less destructive disagreements.
Don’t let false dichotomies cloud your thinking
How we speak starts with how we think. And our thinking is informed by learning, culture, religion, and generations of stories. Although we may not agree on what is good and what is bad, the struggle between them is what anthropologists call human universal, deeply embedded in our collective DNA. This binary thinking – right vs. wrong, win vs. lose – leads us to simplistically approach problems with either-or thinking.
And it gets worse because social media makes everything seem binary. There is no room for nuance in a 10 second reel. It’s no wonder we get more and more addicted to this world, because the real world is so much harder to understand – filled with deeply nuanced problems, competitive tensions, and contradictions at every turn. Things are rarely cut and dry. Behind almost every dilemma is a set of paradoxical or interdependent paths that cannot be addressed with a single solution. These require Both-and thinking..
“Both-and” reframes problems to invite you to see two positions in relation to each other, rather than in opposition. It moves you from choosing between two alternatives to finding a solution that allows them to coexist. For example, imagine that you balance the trade-offs between high quality and low cost, as many companies do. “Either” thinking pits them against each other: one wins at the expense of the other. Both-and thinking prompts you to dig deeper, find and invest in a well-built operating system that enables both high quality and low cost, reducing errors and increasing reliability.
Both-and thinking is difficult. Right now, most of us are exhausted and frustrated. Our ability to think, reason, and hold many conflicting ideas simultaneously is threatened. “Either” seems like the easiest way to go. But simple answers to complex problems are almost always wrong. Both-and requires us to examine uncomfortable ideas, recognize our blind spots, and rethink the way we see the world – and solve its problems.
Say less, listen more
A friend once said, “Having a thought does not require sharing it.” There are times, especially tough ones, where following your own advice may be your best bet. You may not have enough information to make a convincing opinion. Or you may be wary of other people’s reactions if you take a position they don’t understand or agree with. Perceived pressure to immediately weigh in, take a position, or pick a side can lead to disastrous disagreements and mistakes.
Instead of joining the battle, move from discussion to dialogue, from advocacy to learning. Ask questions to understand where the other person is coming from, what experiences they have that lead them to a certain point of view. Listen to their responses to reveal whether their opinions are based on emotion. Good honest questions invite them to reframe their positions to help you see them more clearly. Feeling heard helps them de-escalate the anger of defending a point of view.
When all else fails, there is silence. Silence is uncomfortable because people can misinterpret a lack of words. But people also misinterpret words. Silence provides an unparalleled opportunity to step back, observe and reflect. By not jumping right in, you can untangle your thoughts, balance your emotions, and gain the strength to face challenging conversations. And great negotiators know that developing the capacity for silence slows down your instinct to defend and increases your ability to listen. When we listen more, we understand more.
It is hard to imagine a time before the Tower of Babel when all people spoke the same language and were united by the same mission. This is unthinkable today. There is no chance we will ever agree on the destructive things that are tearing our world in two. But our livelihoods, the health of our workplaces, and the preservation of our very humanity depend on building better skills to engage with viewpoints different from our own. Reframing uncomfortable conversations not as personal attacks but as learning opportunities. To deal with our thorniest issues, we must be willing and able to listen to the experiences, wants, and needs of others. To actively seek out viewpoints we don’t understand and maybe, just maybe, find common ground we never thought existed. These can be important first steps towards building a tower in a higher and better place.