We seem more divided today than ever before and these divisions are seeping into the workplace. Most people are afraid to approach divisive topics such as politics at work for fear of damaging a relationship or embarrassing themselves. So we don’t try, allowing assumptions, biases and stereotypes to fester. 

I’d like to propose another way.

The workplace is often the place that is most diverse for many of us when compared to our personal social circles. So why not make the most out of diversity at work to practice having dialog across differences. The key is to not focus on what could go wrong with a conversation about differences at work, but consider what could go right. By bridging differences through dialog at work, we have the opportunity to replace biases and stereotypes with empathy and understanding, deepen relationships with colleagues and contribute to building a culture of belonging.

That’s a lot that can go right! And here’s why I’m confident it can work…

I lived in South Africa from 1996 to 1998. It was two years after the end of apartheid, after Nelson Mandala was released from prison and became president. I got to experience what it was like for a country to transition from a deeply divided apartheid state to a unified democracy.

Much of this was made possible through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was founded in the belief that truth was the only means by which South Africa could come to a shared understanding of their past in order to forge a new identity in the future. The commission, led by Desmond Tutu, held hearings across the country in churches and community centers, where victims of crimes under apartheid and perpetrators of crimes could come forward and share their stories in the spirit of seeking understanding and healing. 

The stories were aired on TV every Sunday, which helped spark a spirit of listening, learning and relationship-building across the country. I saw before my eyes how an intentional effort to uncover and understand the human experience common among all of us beyond race, culture and political affiliation healed an entire country.

With my South Africa experience in mind, I’m making a conscious effort to never walk away from the opportunity to find common ground through conversation at work even when it seems risky or impossible. Here are some easy tips you can use to bridge differences through dialog at work and to ensure your efforts are positive and productive.

First, the mindset you have going into a conversation will make all the difference in the world. Engage with these guiding principles in mind:

  • Engage with genuine curiosity. Have the intention to broaden understanding, not to argue your point.
  • Listen and seek to understand, not to agree. Assume you can always learn even when you don’t always agree.
  • Believe what you learn. Remember that just because it is not your experience doesn’t mean it isn’t true.    

Second, initiate a conversation. Don’t worry about putting your foot in your mouth. As long as conversation comes from a place of genuine interest, you’ll be fine. Use these 3 simple phrases to get started:

  • “I’m curious to know…” – this is a way of asking what’s on your mind without casting judgement.
  • “Tell me more…” – allows someone to share in whatever way is meaningful to them.
  • “Thanks for sharing” – thank the person for being vulnerable and reciprocate by sharing something about yourself.

Remember, don’t ask or expect anyone you are meeting with to speak on behalf of or represent the view point of any particular group. No two people are alike. 

Third, reflect on the experience so you can begin to appreciate someone else’s lived experience that is different from your own. The beauty of conversing with people different than you is you get to know the many nuances and differences inherent in difference. The more people you get to know who are different than you, the broader, deeper and richer your understanding of complex issues will be. Enable your learning through reflection:

  • Reflect on how you felt during the conversation. Think about what you did, thought, and felt at the time. What did you experience during the conversation? 
  • Reflect on your learning.  What does this experience say to you? What can I learn?

Finally, be sure to set realistic expectations aligned with your goal. Your ultimate goal with engaging in conversations across differences is to appreciate and learn from someone else’s lived experiences to broaden your perspective and begin to replace biases with empathy and understanding.

You are unlikely to accomplish all of that in one conversation. So stive to have a near-term goal of just opening the door and keeping the door open for a second, third or fourth conversation. That may mean…

  • Being Patient. Sometimes people aren’t ready to engage. That’s OK. It’s best to wait for when the time is right.
  • Being Compassionate. Bridging differences can be emotionally draining, but you are likely making progress even if it doesn’t feel like it. Extend kindness, grace and forgiveness to yourself and others.
  • Being Committed. Again, strive to keep the door open for several conversations over time. 

Bridging differences through dialog with colleagues takes courage and curiosity. It will push you outside of your comfort zone because it is human tendency to gravitate towards people who are similar to us. But if you only socialize with people who are like you, you reinforce the person who you already are.  Having a diverse group of friends makes you better informed, more thoughtful, more empathetic and more balanced.

So far, I have not regretted any of my attempts at conversations across differences with colleagues. And the good news is, I’m not alone. I’m having more conversations with people about having conversations with people lately! If we keep it up, I think we can make the workplace (and the world) a whole lot better…one conversation at a time!