“Democracy is a conversation” – that’s one great line in the otherwise rather maligned film, Batman versus Superman. It’s also one of the world’s big conundrums, as Winston Churchill acknowledged and recent times have demonstrated. Just because we’re surrounded by “conversations” (online and elsewhere) doesn’t mean the majority of us are good at it. Rather the reverse.
Most of us uneasily wonder what happens if we do disagree; at work, in shared spaces, at family get-togethers. Is apathy better than outright clashes of belief? How often is tolerance merely unspoken disapproval?
The company leader needs to set an overarching tone and expectations through their body language, their discourse and their policies. It’s incumbent on management to fairly, professionally and inclusively demonstrate and communicate healthy work culture parameters. How you and others discuss heartfelt work issues and underling values will set the framework for how conversations in the workplace are conducted.
If clashes over beliefs are causing “conversations” to falter – the following can be useful ways to encourage civility:
1. Respect each other’s religious beliefs while requesting that sectarian or partisan views (of all varieties) be left at home
This can’t always be enforced but by making it company policy, you have it in writing. It’s a principle to which all staff must adhere, because tensions are often just below the surface and arbitrating a solution to people’s differences once debates become heated can take on alarming proportions.
2. People should be civil and civilised when discussing viewpoints (in person or online)
If a person wears a religious piece of clothing to work, don’t make a joke about their religion. Their clothes and belief system have nothing to do with performance. Equally, don’t allow staff to expostulate in social media forums, believing they are safe to rant. These days outspoken views can cost you your job. If you start asserting that it’s a “free world” on the internet, remember that rights also entail responsibilities if you want democracy to succeed. It’s not actually a free-for-all; anarchy and society breakdown can be the result. And for some companies, they will ask their staff not to present radical personal views online while in their employ.
3. Where possible, instigate get-togethers sampling different cuisines in different settings
Breaking bread, wontons, naan and pita works surprisingly well. Most people today love trying different cuisines. Even if they don’t, Maeve O’Mara’s “Food Safari” SBS show is a delightful demonstration of Australia’s already multi-faceted culture. In this vein, encourage staff to run sessions explaining how business is done where they come from, what they’ve observed when travelling and for participants to ask questions. We already inherit and adopt overseas customs when doing business – how else to explain karaoke’s popularity, or even the way pecha kuchas (look them up) are replacing powerpoints? Money is a universal language, most people want to be fluent.
4. Take every opportunity to learn and educate
Gravitate to those different from you. Learn about their cultural backgrounds, their families, their homes, their food. When people are ignorant, don’t complain and talk about them behind their backs. Take time to explain what you know, or suggest you both find out what is factual. Don’t perpetuate ugly comments, jokes and assumptions.
If you perceive an opportunity to enlighten others, do so tactfully. You don’t have to be formal and unfriendly. Be real, caring and if gentle humour is warranted, that’s OK.
Facts and properly moderated conversations will override many, if not all, strongly-held opinions. But even facts alter in the face of new evidence. Belief systems generally originate through years of custom, but also people constructing the world to fit their outlook.
Set an example by being rigorous, thoughtful and open-minded, and that irrespective of the camp to which one belongs, shouting is not persuasive.
Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace. See the rest of Eve’s blogs here.