This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.
By the time I entered the room, the two sides were locked into position. One side was convinced that they had the answer. The other side wouldn’t budge from their belief that they were right. Each side was making their points, logically explaining the benefits of their approach, but the tension was rising and the frustration was growing. It looked like the meeting would end without resolution.
In the United States, polarization is on the rise. We tend to think of polarization in political terms, but the behavior extends to the workplace. When faced with a different point of view, people often dig into their perspectives. The resulting conversation, which you’ve probably seen, looks like a ping pong game: one side makes their point, the other side rebuts, the first side counters, and so on. As the discussion continues, people become more convinced that they’re right and the other is wrong.
A stalemate ensues.
Then things get worse. We start to separate people into us versus them.
Us versus Them: Poison for Problem Solving
The Planet of the Apes, filmed in 1968, included actors playing chimpanzees, gorillas, and humans. Between takes, people would gather for lunch. A curious thing happened: people chose to eat with others playing the same role in the film. Gorillas ate with gorillas and chimps ate with chimps. It simply felt more comfortable.
Humans are highly vulnerable to falling into in-groups and out-groups, to creating us and them categories, even when what binds people together is as superficial as a role in a movie. Yet the reality is that there is more commonality between groups than we often recognize. Politically, we may tend to vote for one party, but most people don’t completely align with the platform of any one party. “In real life,” writes Amanda Ripley, author of High Conflict, “most people have complex, ambivalent feelings… Their knowledge is uneven, and their opinions are manifold.”
Unfortunately, when we engage in ping pong workplace arguments, we easily forget the complexity of our experiences. We ignore the internal whispers that question our stated point of view. We flatten the issue into simplistic black-or-white choices. Over time, we convince ourselves that there must be something wrong with the other group. A minor rift deepens into distrust, assumptions, and stereotypes that can make every meeting an argument and every decision a chore.
Is it any surprise then that problem solving can be so difficult? When representatives from different groups come together, they can struggle to get beyond their locked-in perceptions of the other. The quality of problem-solving erodes and people end up making compromises that satisfy no one.
Deeper Conversations, Healthier Conflict, Better Decision Making
Lately, I have been exploring the Lewis Method of Deep Democracy, which groups make better decisions and defuse tensions before they erupt into intractable conflicts. The method was developed in the late 1990s by Myrna and Greg Lewis, who were asked to help a large South African company work through the legacy of apartheid.
Last week, colleague Ipek Utun and I were delighted to share Deep Democracy with the Mid-Atlantic Facilitators’ Network (MAFN). The amazing graphic recorder Patricia Tiffany Angkiriwang created the visuals shown here.
In the workshop, we focused on one Deep Democracy tool designed to shift groups away from polarization and the “us versus them” dynamic. The rapid back-and-forth pace of a heated debate can be energizing, but it’s not always the best for exploring ideas, so the first thing we do is slow down the pace of conversation.
We give each “side” the chance to fully express all of the reasons, facts, and feelings associated with that point of view before we shift to the other “side.” Here’s the radical piece: everyone is encouraged to contribute to both sides, even if they came into the meeting holding a specific point of view. They can even disagree with themselves.
Through this technique, the complexity of the issue begins to emerge. The group moves beyond all-or-nothing views and starts to hear the wisdom emerging from the other side. People don’t always change their point of view; that’s not the point. What is important is that people gain a fuller, more balanced understanding of the situation, interrupt the “us versus them” dynamic, and find a way to jointly address the complexity of the issue.
Try It Out: A Simple Way of Working with Conflict
Using tools like the Deep Democracy can help workgroups avoid polarization, escape the “us versus them” trap, and make better decisions.
You can try this on the job. The next time the conversation starts to ping pong and frustrations rise, propose a different way. Explain that the group will explore each side in turn. Everyone will have their say, but it won’t be a ping pong match. Instead, it’ll be a deep exploration. See what happens!
If you’re interested in learning more about Deep Democracy, you can read “The Wisdom in the No: A New Approach to Conflict” or learn about our upcoming Foundations of Deep Democracy workshop in April 2022.
NOTE: In most places around the world, this technique is called the Debate. Americans tend to associate “debate” with our presidential debates, which are pretty much the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve. I and the other American practitioners are seeking alternative names, but haven’t settled on one yet.