Meeting with my coaching clients over the last week involved a number of conversations about the recent presidential election. “I don’t talk to anyone at work about it,” “I’m avoiding people in the hallway,” and “I only talk to people who voted the way I did,” are some of the statements my clients voiced in our sessions. But one sentiment: “I can talk to you, Lee, because this is a safe space,” has stayed with me.
What makes a space safe to speak your mind, and what makes our work places feel unsafe to be authentic?
More and more companies are shifting their managers’ mindset from evaluators to coaches. The change is slow, but developing people who perform at their best makes better business sense than designing procedures that people need to serve. Coaching conversations are different than evaluation discussions in a number of ways, and if we adopt some of the coaching principles, we’ll be able to safely open up in our interactions with colleagues.
Principle #1: Listen with Non-Judgment — When someone talks to you about their political views, remind yourself that they are projecting their own reality, describing their own experience, and coming from their own background. I tell myself, “everyone has a soul and a story,” and I get curious about where they’re coming from when they share their ideas, hopes, fears and vision. Other people’s views are not a threat to your way of seeing the world. If you’re secure in your beliefs, you can open up to others’ ideas. Listening with non-judgment also triggers a reciprocal exchange, where the other person will be more open to listening to us after feeling that they’ve been heard.
Principle #2: Cultivate an Open Mind — The world is not binary and a dogmatic mindset will only lead us to dead ends. So in the words of USC’s Steven Sample, “Think grey and think free.” In political discussions, it really doesn’t have to be your way or mine. It’s not constructive to say that if your colleague voted for one candidate, you can’t talk to them anymore, because you have to continue working together. People disagree with their children and with their spouses, but opposition doesn’t need to lead to conflict.
Principle #3: Aim to Learn — One of the first skills I learned in coaching is to self-manage and put my agenda aside when working with clients. I always have a lot to say, but I remind myself that I already know what I know, and I don’t need to reinforce my knowledge. When taking the courageous step to talk about opposing views with your colleagues, put yourself in the growth mindset of a learner; aim to walk away from the conversation with new insights about the person and the subject.
Principle #4: Create Connection — We don’t have to make a proactive, conscious choice to block, but we do have to be intentional if we want to create connection with other people. Approaching the conversation like coaches means that we assume mutual respect and don’t look at the other person as someone who needs to be fixed. We have I-You versus I-It conversations. So if someone has a different political view, they are not obstacles in our way or irrelevant to our goals. How we respond, understand and communicate with each other says more about how we view people — as whole humans or as broken objects.
Creating a safe space means that we allow ourselves and others to be vulnerable and real without fear of retaliation or harassment. People don’t speak their minds when they think they’ll be attacked or alienated, so it’s our responsibility to cultivate a culture in which our language and behavior exhibits listening, non-judgment, openness, learning and connection.
Lee Broekman is a communication coach and trainer. Her company Organic Communication, brings interactive, never boring, always edifying presentations and programs — focused on communication, collaboration and innovation — to your firm or organization.