Two weeks ago, I was facilitating a session for middle managers about Inclusion & Diversity. And you know what intrigues me most about this work? It’s that DEI always leads to highly controversial discussions, while at the same time nobody is against it. On the opposite, everybody always talks about how important it is, how much they value it that everybody feels at home in this company, etc. Everybody seems to agree about the need to change ‘something’. Why then does a topic that everybody agrees on leads to so much frustration, misunderstanding, offence-taking and blame?
I think the answer is that although nobody is against diversity & inclusion, our brains are. The hardware in the brain consists of neural networks, the software consists of rules we have learned in our lives (if… then… algorithms). Bias is deeply anchored in the way neural networks are constructed and operate, where shortcuts and obvious solutions win from deep analysis of less obvious constructs. We follow heuristic rules, and although we’d like to tell ourselves we are objective and rational, we are not. When interviewing a candidate for a new position in our team, any manager believes she or he is professional hence objective. Yet even professional brains of managers contain programmed (and unconscious) preferences that make them behave irrational, unprofessional and in some cases downward racist. We are not as rational as we hope to be.
In the same way, we all believe that we are very open to different beliefs and opinions. The DEI problem – according to these beliefs – is an issue that can only be solved if other people start to adjust their behavior, while deep down we are convinced it is not us. Let me speak for myself: I have noticed that I am less open to different points-of-view than I would love to be. And I think the same holds for all human beings: we are very bad judges of our own competences, and certainly when it comes to cases we have strong feelings about or where we are personally deeply involved in.
Our openness to opposing views is much more limited than we’d love to believe. Even more so in a time where we are told to be outspoken and opinionated, and where public debates are very polarized, dividing us in pro and con groups. The more controversial and outspoken both parties in a debate are, the better. Outspoken people and controversial topics are interesting for the public to engage in, and stay engaged in. Snap-shot opinions and spicy quotes rule. The time you need to explain your point of view in a talkshow on TV is measured in seconds, and if your quotes are not spicy and extreme enough, you won’t be invited again. We say we tolerate and stimulate diversity of views, but we behave according to different rules.
Researchers found that our openness to opposing views is limited, and that – more than we are aware of ourselves – we tend to reject rather than explore an opposing idea. Rejection is the easy path, characterized by not really engaging in the discomfort of the clashing ideas. The more difficult path, and the path we should learn to walk more often, is to publicly explore opposing views, thoughtfully considering other opinions and maybe even learn from them. When you speak to a colleague about a topic you strongly disagree on, you hope that she listens with full attention, considers what you are telling her carefully and asks more questions to improve her understanding, all of this without judging you as a person. And if she does, it makes you feel good, even though you may disagree on the content.
But we often don’t listen with full attention. We don’t take time to carefully evaluate what others say, and we hardly ask questions aimed to learn rather than judge.
So what is needed to deal effectively with opposing views? In a study called “Why won’t you listen to me?”, Julia Minson of Harvard University and Frances Chen of the University of British Colombia outlined there are 3 stages we should go through when dealing with clashes of opinion:
- Be receptive to opposing views
This means we do not immediately zap to another channel when we don’t support the political views of the person who is being interviewed. It means we don’t divert conversations sneakily when we feel we make no progress (“Let’s talk about it later”). And it means we do not mindlessly scroll through reels and articles until we find something we like. No, we’d rather look for what we don’t like. We are receptive to information that conflicts with our own beliefs.
- Process thoroughly
We are all tempted to accept or dismiss information based simply on whether the information helps us (it supports our beliefs) or hinders us (it contrasts our beliefs). But objective evaluation means that – regardless of whether you agree or not – you process information thoroughly and thoughtfully to come to a balanced view.
- Evaluate objectively
We are objective when we evaluate the quality of arguments and sources of information in the same way, regardless of whether we agree or disagree on the content. And again, we think we do this, but our brain doesn’t. The term ‘naïve realism’ describes that we often attribute disagreement to stupidity, bias, or malevolence on the part others. Simply put: if we don’t like the idea, we simply reject the source of it or label the person as stupid or biased.
We obviously all strive to be receptive to opposing views, to process information thoroughly and form our opinion in an objective way. It is helpful to know that our brain is wired differently, and that we are likely to act less constructive and fair when faced with disagreement. Therefore 3 tips, to apply in the next discussion with a colleague who has different ideas than you:
- Decide to be curious
- Take the time
- Accept the unaccepted
- Decide to be curious
We often think curiosity is a character trait: somebody is curious, or not. But you can bring yourself in a curious state as well. Without abandoning your own view and opinion, decide to see the opinion of the other person as an interesting object to learn and explore. Get fascinated by the idea of investigating their point of view, turn it around, study it in all detail, and have fun with the experiment. Remember, your own opinion does not have to be affected: that one you safely parked and you will return to it later after you finished your experiments.
2. Take the time
Don’t rush through the opinions of others, just to get back to your own view. Put your own opinion safely in the parking garage, it will not be gone when you come back. The ideas of your opponent deserve to be fully studied. This is quality over quantity: rather than finishing this discussion and moving on, decide to put qualitative time in coming to the best possible decision. In-depth, rather than superficial. Weigh both sides of the story carefully and postpone judgment until later.
3. Accept the unaccepted
Put yourself temporary in the frame of mind that ‘the other person is right’. This is a difficult and hard step, but well worth it. In debating school, you learn to defend positions you don’t support. And for a good reason: identifying with the other side of an argument makes you more balanced and objective. Accept the point of view of the other person, find arguments why that person is right and not you, and get convinced. If after doing this you are still convinced you were right, please proceed driving through your view.
There is a chance however that you have revised your opinion. In that case, congratulations, as you did what the strongest of leaders do. Objectively find out about the truth, rather than follow the quick and easy shortcuts our brain wants us to make. Overriding that primal instinct with thorough and objective analysis is what only the best of leaders do. It is this careful exploration of new ideas and opinions that makes workplaces inclusive. Because unexpected views that clash with your own enrich rather than divide our diverse workforce.