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Disagree with Someone at Work? Try Having a “Gap Conversation”.

By Communication, CRT, Diversity, Leadership, Workplace Culture

“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 transgressorthe 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 importantcan 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 storyeven when the story describes my own made-up interpretation of an eventthe 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?”

They won’t.

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

Here’s Why Some Families Are “Quiet Quitting” Public School

By CRT, Education

This story is part 1 of a 3 part series.

In my hometown of Bend, Oregon, the Bend-La Pine school district is experiencing an unusual decline in its student census this year compared to last year. So far, over 1000 fewer students are registered. Deschutes County is experiencing demographic growth that should, if anything, show a trend in the opposite direction. In fact, the demographics for the four-county area called the “High Desert Education Service District” show a 500% increase in homeschooling since 2019. 

Something’s up…

Obviously, a lot of the change has to do with the coronavirus, but according to Paul Andrews, superintendent of the four High Desert school districts, of which

 Deschutes County is one, there is another factor at play: “School curriculums related to the role of race and racism in the U.S. haven’t changed in the last year, but what has is the attitude of some parents towards it.”  

What I am hearing from my neighbors and friends who teach or work in public school administration here is that a lot of families are pulling their kids out of school to homeschool them because of fear and discontent about teaching critical race theory. 

I’m curious what these families think critical race theory is and what they’ve been told about it. What is it they are so concerned about that they would prefer to homeschool their kids rather than use the educational services their tax dollars already pay for?

My next reaction is to over-simplify a solution, thinking all we need to do is get more and better information on what critical race theory is into their hands so they can see it’s nothing more than an exploration of how systems sustain themselves, which makes systemic issues like racism or sexism very hard to undo at a societal level.

But there is a deeper issue at play here: many of these families feel marginalized and unheard about their concerns when it comes to topics about race, immigration, history, education, the pay gap, and class. Add to their anxiety the stories they are hearing about how “liberals” are trying to replace them with less expensive immigrant workers and that our schools’ history curricula are designed to assault their children’s self-esteem and confidence.

In Bend and nationally, this group has learned to identify people like me from a mile away. They know to avoid talking about what concerns them for fear of being judged as “Trumpers,” or ignorant, or racist, or anti-vaxxers, or worse.

I’m not reading new stories about incensed, outraged, and upset parents who are pulling their kids out of school because they feel marginalized. Many of them are just quietly taking action. Why should they hazard the kind of eye-rolling judgments people like me have been making about them for so long?

If we liberal or progressive people really want to create a world that works for everyone, we better start by practicing the tenants of diversity on ourselves. We’re not morally superior because we believe in equity or civil rights, or justice or democracy, and acting more right than others just drives them away. We reek of judgment when we objectify and make fun of them. The way we look down our noses at them sends a message about who we think is better, even if our words don’t say so. And this same group of people—the ones who are afraid of their kids learning CRTwill also tell us they believe in a similar set of pro-U.S. ideals. 

Yes, some folks choose to believe that news is more entertainment than fact, and they don’t appear to be open to feeling or seeing how stunningly disproportionate discrimination and bias is on men and women of color, or on white women, or on LGBTQ+ folks. However, they aren’t going to find their empathy or look at the data as long as they feel our supremacy over them. 

Through their votes and decisions, this group is tacitly showing us that they are willing to forgo democracy if it gives them a better chance to catch a small piece of the American dream. It’s our move, and we are failing at it. 

Let’s get to work on learning to create positive partnerships with our embattled, disenfranchised white neighbors. We don’t have to agree with them or pretend to adopt some of their points of view to get invited to dinner;  we just have to be curious and nonjudgemental enough to listen to their storiesall of themabout what they are afraid of and who they think is to blame for it.  

There are a lot of things to do after we learn to create positive partnerships, but let’s start there.

IS THE GRASS REALLY BLUE? Why Challenging the Anti-CRT Lobby Is Worth It

By CRT, History, Racism

If the assertions of the anti-Critical Race Theory lobby are largely baseless distortions of reality, then doesn’t defending critical race theory and addressing baseless claims just bring legitimacy to an otherwise illegitimate argument?

I had to  consider this question before deciding to publish Gaslights and Dog Whistles.  One colleague – someone I very much admire whose opinion means a lot to me – read the entire manuscript and suggested that I not publish it at all, or if I must, to take out references to critical race theory, white supremacy, and patriarchy. His sentiments were similar to some but not all of my colleagues  – mostly male and all white – who also felt that arguing the case might bring more attention to a baseless argument. 

Then, a friend sent me a story I had long ago forgotten: the parable of the donkey, the tiger and the lion. In it, the donkey claims that grass is blue and tries to convince the tiger to see it the same way.  The tiger – in spite of the pressure the donkey puts on him to agree –  just can’t bring himself to do it. A heated debate ensues. Frustrated, they decide to bring the matter before their supreme ruler, the lion.

They approach the lion.  Overwrought with his desire to win the argument, the donkey scrambles to approach the lion, whining ′′Your Highness, isn’t it true that the grass is blue?” 

The lion replied: “If you believe it is true, the grass is blue.”

The donkey adds: ′′The tiger disagrees with me, he contradicts and annoys me. Please punish him.”

The lion then declared: ′′The tiger will be punished with 3 days of silence.”

The donkey jumped with joy and went on his way, content and repeating ′′The grass is blue, the grass is blue…”

The tiger asked the lion, “Your Majesty, why have you punished me? After all, the grass is green!”

The lion replied, ′′You’ve known and seen the grass is green.”

The tiger asked, ′′So why do you punish me?”

The lion replied, “The punishment has nothing to do with whether the grass is blue or green. The punishment is because it is degrading for a brave, intelligent creature like you to waste time arguing with an ass, and on top of that, you came and bothered me with that question just to validate something you already knew was true!”

The point the parable makes is that intelligent people shouldn’t argue over a point that is nonsense because it lowers them. Also, why bother arguing with somebody who has no interest in the truth or the facts?

I understood the parable’s parallels to my quandary. The grass IS green; racism and discrimination in the U.S. is a real and important chapter in U.S. history, and the chapter is still being written. Why continue to discuss or argue about the obvious?

For me, it is a matter of magnitude and impact.  The “grass is blue” strategy – as baseless as it is – has activated fear and avoidance in executives in the private and government sectors to the degree that some suspended or camouflaged their organization’s work towards inclusion to avoid scrutiny or the risk of being defunded.  35 states are considering banning the teaching or reading of the history of slavery and the struggle for civil rights in the US and around the world. These actions make the assertions of DE&I detractors seem reasonable, lending credibility to the” grass is blue” strategy.

If the only voices being heard are theirs, then how does what has and is happening in history survive?

Mei Ratz, a colleague and brilliant coach and interventionist, poignantly said “Bending history is dangerous because it contorts the lessons we are meant to take from it. If we bend history to protect the abuser, we erase who they abused entirely.” 

It should come as no surprise that almost 100% of the ban proponents are white.  What does that tell us? What color is the real “grass” in this debate?

Go ahead. Tell me I am the tiger. I agree.

There is a difference between protecting our pride and defending our dignity and I think standing up for the facts and for real history – however embarrassing and shameful it is – need not reduce anyone’s status or self-respect.  It takes courage to take responsibility, so call us “tigers” all you want.

We need to remember the grass is green, no matter what some say.