Personal relationships and a strong sense of community in the workplace have been repeatedly shown to help create high performing work places. However, you only need to look at the recent explosion of books about bad bosses, difficult employees and how to retire early to know that this is not what most of us experience. Why? Although it seems it should be the most natural thing to do, building authentic community is challenging and complex work that takes deliberate attention and commitment.
One of many success factors is the ability to engage in productive dialogue. While talking comes easily, dialogue (free exchange of meaning between two more people) frequently is not. There are many places we can get off track but this “free flow” typically gets forestalled when we disagree. In a workplace environment a negative, self-reinforcing loop can quickly be created between individuals or work groups.
However, there is certainly another way. Instead of moving away from conflict and reducing dialogue, what if we used the character strengths of curiosity and kindness to move closer and create more conversation? You might be thinking as you read this that kindness doesn’t seem powerful enough to address tough challenges. Sharon Salzberg describes the perspective that many of us have held about kindness.
“Yet growing up I had the impression that a kind heart ranked awfully low in cultural desirability, well after a sound head, a sharp wit, invulnerability, power over others, a fine sense of irony, and countless other qualities. The hero I saw displayed in the movies was fiercely resolute; the sidekick, trailing after the hero, picking up the pieces, might have been kind.”
She goes on to describe another type of kindness. Kindness that is fiercely resolute in seeing the best in individuals and bravely interacting based on this belief. True kindness can seem counter-cultural. But when we engage and are engaged in this way consistently, we usually (not always of course) rise to the challenge of showing up with our best intentions present. Kindness is a powerful tool for creating new relational possibilities.
If we combine kindness with a bit of curiosity, we won’t make quick judgements or attributions about the other that create a barrier to actual understanding. Utilizing the character strength of curiosity, we break down the barrier that is erected when we stop listening and replace it with new levels of understanding. These two character strengths combined offer a highly effective lever to create dialogue that expands trust, the life blood of community.
But how does this play out in practice? The authors of Crucial Conversations tell the story of a CEO who opted for kindness and curiosity. Greta, a CEO of a mid-size company, was nearing the end of a tense two hour meeting in front of 400 company leaders. From the back of the room, a manager asked why they were having to cut back and she was buying new furniture. Instead of responding with an instinctive angry and defensive retort, Greta paused. She kindly appreciated the question and took the time to ask more about what the manager was thinking and called for the invoices to be brought out and reviewed together in the moment. Using kindness and curiosity, she turned what could have been an inflammatory conversation into one that built understanding, trust and strengthened community.
To the degree we can all make similar decisions every day, we will create stronger and healthier communities in our organizations.