“Gap Conversation” (noun) Definition: A high stakes conversation where you and someone with whom you have and want to maintain a positive relationship discuss what has previously been considered an undiscussable topic (the Gap). Gap Conversations are inherently risky, but they often deepen connections and relationships when they go well.
Let’s say you’re having a conversation with someone you have a good work relationship with. Before you know it, the conversation has taken a turn into a subject that you suspect you and the other person disagree about, ideologically. Maybe it’s about the importance of unions, maybe it’s a disagreement about the need to have workers return to the office, or maybe it’s about the importance of DE&I.
You have a choice: change the subject quickly or enter into a Gap Conversation, hoping that your suspected disagreement becomes an opportunity to deepen and strengthen the relationship through mutual understanding. 70% of the time, research shows we avoid the conversation, and there is good evidence that the more we avoid, the more likely we are to accidentally create a toxic work culture.
If you are saying to yourself, “Forget it, Gap Conversations don’t work, and they are not worth the risk. Those people have their minds made up. There is no point in even trying…”
I invite you to consider whose mind is made up: yours or theirs?
I’ve been practicing having Gap Conversations a lot these days, and I would say my success rate is just over 50%. Given how difficult it is currently to “close the gap” with people who feel differently, I think it’s worth the effort.
Here is what I am practicing and how it’s going:
Suspend the desire to be right
I am learning to suspend my desire to be right, especially when I feel I have a more accurate grasp of the facts and data. I get really irritated when someone cites something that they heard on a tabloid news network or read on social media, as if the data is real when it isn’t. These sorts of conversations are not about facts or data, at least not at first. In my case, I think my desire to be right is tied to some old “not good enough” wounds from being a kid with an undiagnosed learning disability in elementary school. When my “I am right” switch is on, I muck things up pretty badly, so I’m working on noticing my level of activation and not allowing it to drive what I do or say.
Restrain and redirect my moral outrage
I recently talked about moral outrage in another blog I just wrote. It is the strong emotion that we feel when we experience or see an injustice, which we then convert into a moral judgment in a nano-second. When we feel it, it’s tempting to resort to shaming or attacking the wrong-doer as if we’ve caught them in the act. For example, I remember how it felt when I first watched the infamous video of a white woman who, in 2020, falsely called 911 on a Black man who had confronted her for unleashing her dog in a leash-required part of Central Park. I’m pretty sure I posted something about it that expressed my moral outrage at the transgressor—the white woman. I wasn’t alone, and the video of the event went viral in ways that were life-changing for her. There is no doubt that her actions were dangerous and egregious and speak to the very worst in us, but when I look back on that moment, I wish I could have found something constructive to say, or to have said nothing at all. I allowed my moral outrage to mindlessly take charge as I piled on with millions of others.
Start with listening to their story, all of it
I try to really focus on listening in every Gap Conversation. Under the surface, everyone has a unique story, and if we look at the pushback and backlash that DEI is getting right now, a LOT of it is coming from disenfranchised white people who feel that the hardships they overcame are not being considered. I’m not listening so I can agree or disagree with them. I am listening to understand and be empathetic to what created the feelings the other person is dealing with.
Remember (and prioritize) what matters
It helps me to stay centered on my ultimate priorities, which in most cases is to be in a positive relationship with people, even if we disagree. I don’t have to sacrifice my values to get along with someone, but remembering that relationships are as important as sharing “my truth” helps me be more empathetic and accessible to others. I try to start Gap Conversations by laying out the context as we start: “My relationship with you is important—can we talk honestly about (this topic) even if we disagree?”
Slow d o w n
My sense of urgency and drive can be helpful traits, but my bias for efficiency and speed can also be a real liability, particularly when it comes to listening and understanding the perspectives of others. I’d say I need to work on empathy, but for me, I need to work on the step before empathy which is to slow down enough to really get where people are at and understand what they’re feeling. I’m finding that I have some real stuck patterns around my urgency and turning everything into something that has to be attended to NOW. I’ve even engaged a coach to help me work on this, and I can see and feel the difference with people when they know I am present for them.
Share my own vulnerability
This is where I talk about what’s true for me, including disclosing my fears, anxieties, and concerns I have about whatever we are discussing. When I’m able to be vulnerable and to talk about my own story—even when the story describes my own made-up interpretation of an event—the very act of my owning my misinterpretation becomes a statement of my desire to have trust.
Redefine what “success” means
Having let go of the need to be right, we can also let go of any attachment to needing to reach an agreement. Gap Conversations are successful when each person has a better view into the way the other person views the world, and why. Even best friends may have to agree to disagree about some things. Pinpointing the specific issue can be liberating; it allows us to maintain a collegial relationship in spite of our disagreement.
Having an effective Gap Conversation doesn’t mean that one or both parties need to agree that both sides are equally valid. They may not be. The facts underlying the ideological divide in our society on topics like who won the last presidential election, or the nature and history of racism, don’t equally support both perspectives. But just because the facts are on our side doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t listen to the perspectives of others. Beneath the data lies the real fear or mindset that can only be resolved through empathy and communication.
Business is such an important driver of commerce AND culture in our society. Even when we are at work and the issues are messy, let’s ask ourselves, “How can I engage in more Gap Conversations instead of pretending that they’ll go away on their own?”
For more on closing the Gap, consider picking up Jim’s book on Amazon, “Gaslights and Dog Whistles – Standing Up For Facts Over Fiction in a Fearful and Divided World”