A 2022 Fox News poll found that 81% of registered U.S. voters were extremely or very concerned about polarization in the country, while a FiveThirtyEight poll showed that nearly 30% of Americans consider political polarization one of the country’s most important issues (behind inflation and crime).
Open conversation and understanding can bridge this division, but they require people to ask the right questions and genuinely listen to different points of view.
A new conversation guide from MIT Sloan leadership experts offers people on opposite ends of the political spectrum four steps for improving communication. In the workplace, managers and their teams can use the techniques to bridge differences and become more collaborative and productive at problem-solving.
The Listening Challenge helps people build a relational connection at the outset of a conversation and understand what drives their particular positions or beliefs on an issue, according to MIT Sloan lecturer who co-created the guide with consultant Kara Penn, MBA ’07, and collaborator Benjamin Swift.
Listening doesn’t mean you have to agree with someone, nor does it mean you have to give up your beliefs or not hold others accountable for their actions, the researchers write in the recent Medium post “Red Fathers and Blue Daughters Bridging the Political Divide.”
“It means we try to understand what other people really think, and why they act the way they do. No one can lose from greater understanding,” according to the post.
The Listening Challenge is one of more than 400 efforts in the Listen First Project, a nonprofit group with a mission to reduce political and ideological polarization in the U.S.
The Medium post outlined the four steps of the Listening Challenge, using Isaacs’ and Penn’s combined knowledge of social science research, and their practical experience as facilitators of groups wrestling with complex issues. The steps can directly apply to a business environment, particularly when “you’ve got a stuck problem of some kind and the way to unstick it is to get people to open up a little bit and share stories around how they experience the problem personally,” Isaacs said.
“You need to make the problem personal so that people can relate to the difficulties and challenges and problems that the situation is creating for the people in it,” Isaacs said. “This is why organizations find customer journey mapping so helpful—because it personalizes the customer’s experience, including their emotional experience, and creates relatable stories that the organization can then act on.”
Before getting started, ensure a safe and productive conversation by setting ground rules. They include: Avoid broad generalizations. Don’t criticize or attempt to persuade one another that a particular point of view is the “right one.” No interruptions. Commit to listening even when something is hard to hear.
Here's a closer look at the four steps.
1. Identify each person’s point of view and the benefits of their values. Organizations use customer journey mapping — why not use it for understanding a teammate? It’s helpful to create space in everyone’s minds to reflect on their own beliefs, and acknowledge that others’ beliefs also are valuable.
2. Align around a shared purpose or goal. Be clear about the vision you’re creating at an organization. Often this comes in the form of serving customers and upholding the company’s purpose, mission, and values. “The idea is to create a sense of shared purpose together before you get into unpacking your views,” Isaacs said.
3. Reflect more critically on your own views. Ask yourself if there are any parts of your side’s policies or actions that you do not agree with. Identify one thing you like or agree with from someone else’s perspective. Think about how you would behave if you had someone else’s experiences. Notice the positive points in others’ views.
4. Create solutions that everyone is likely to adopt. This encourages innovation because all involved must consider how to satisfy the underlying interests that they’ve heard about in the previous listening steps. “It’s the shift away from negotiating about people’s positions on an issue and stepping back to understand their underlying fears and wants,” Isaacs said, “and then creating solutions with their deeper interests in mind.”