What Do Leaders Do When Tensions Are High?
If we as leaders are to expect civility from people, even in one of the most dynamic and charged times in recent history, then we may need some tools. Let's start with acknowledging that emotional volatility is out there. There is a very real possibility that you are going to have multiple interactions and difficult conversations, and you are going to be interacting closely with people who may not share your same values or worldview.
How do you remain civil in the face of it? Next time you find yourself in an emotionally charged situation, where the heart of it is centered in values or views that could be contrary to your own, can you be civil?
The authors of The Leadership Challenge talk about how it is the responsibility of leaders to set the tone—"Leaders Go First"—and to realize it is not about you getting your words out, but you modeling as a leader and setting the tone for your team, your organization, your people.
Practicing Civility Starts With Knowing Where You Are At
If we agree there should be rules of decent and polite behavior to have a reasonable discussion, you need to have enough self-awareness to know how you react. No matter how you present yourself at work or at home, take an honest assessment of how you react to the following statements. Give yourself a rating on the "Very Frequently" to "Never" scale, and reflect on the following numbered statements, as well as reflect on the questions we pose about each statement*:
- I take an active role in creating a welcoming environment for differing opinions.
When doing this, what is it you are saying and doing?
- I make eye contact and give others my full attention when they speak, even when I disagree.
You know when people are not listening to you, how does that make you feel? How do you react to the conversation, and how does that behavior affect you?
- When I disagree with someone, I keep an open mind and, momentarily, put aside what I plan to say next.
What is going through your mind when you are disagreeing — are you really listening, or just planning for your next turn to speak?
- I can’t control others’ behavior or opinions, so I focus on my own actions and civility.
Take a moment to really stop and think about what this means to you, and what it looks like behaviorally.
- I speak respectfully to people with whom I disagree, even if they disrespect me.
Mentally think back on or prepare an example of this really happening. How does it feel, and what do you do?
- I listen for what people mean—not just what they say—when I disagree with them.
Contrast what you are doing when you are only listening to someone’s words to when you are listening for what they actually mean.
Now that we know our own tendencies, we are prepared to talk about diverse perspectives . . .
It is important to realize we all have different "lenses" in how we perceive things. Very importantly, leaders need to realize that just because they have a strongly held opinion—that they feel very passionate, emotional, or deeply about something—that in itself is not an argument. Just because I have strong convictions about an issue, that does not make it more "true", or is in itself an index of its "truth".
Here are some statements to help bridge a conversation when civility is at risk. They all operate under the principle of seeking first to understand, rather than to be understood. As Jane Goodall taught us, "Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don't believe is right."
- "I see that differently, I’d like to hear what you think of that?"
- "Tell me more about why you think that?"
- "I’m coming from a different angle, would it be okay if I shared that with you?"
- "I respect that you see that differently, are you open to hearing a different view?"
- "We may not see things the same, but I appreciate that you have a different perspective."
How have you been challenged to approach your interactions or have difficult conversations with civility? We'd love to hear your perspective below. You can also review some of our resources for helping you to lead through adversity and how we might be able to help.
*Inspired by the Civility Self-Reflection Exercise - Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions