How To Navigate Politically Charged Work Conversations Through Brain Science

We used to stay away from politics at the dinner table — and at work. But now the pandemic has brought politically charged conversations into the office, and leaders are facing the challenge of navigating them. If you are one of them, you’re right to carefully think about messaging: Language matters when it comes to conflict and uncomfortable convos.

“The language we use to get people to hear our message matters. There’s value in being flexible when a message needs to land well. These conversations are usually uncomfortable, and when people feel discomfort, their cognitive functions tend to suffer. They back away from the problem–or lash out,” says Dr. David Rock, CEO and co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global neuroscience-backed consultancy that advises over half of Fortune 100 companies.

“Using language as a tool for inclusivity is the best way to navigate these discussions, like when the military changed the word mindfulness to ‘mental toughness’ for soldiers to see value in resilience. Leaders should start to think ‘Do people feel dissent is welcome? Will their manager listen to them?”

Rock shared insights to help you approach difficult conversations at work with grace, but also with neuroscience-backed methods that will set you up for success.

The Benefits Of Using Neuroscience In Tricky Conversations

Wondering why you shouldn’t simply rely on traditional internal communication tactics to talk to your team about controversial topics?

“Organizations tend to use traditional approaches to these conversations at work. While they are well-intentioned, they tend to fall flat because they don’t acknowledge the thought processes on what makes people tick,” says Rock.

“Everyone has a brain, so approaching political conversations through the lens of neuroscience allows us to incorporate how people react to controversial conversations. Knowing what triggers one’s social ‘threat state’ helps us build an environment that can predict and improve social interaction through shared language.”

For example, if someone is motivated by autonomy, phrasing your message to allow their input can go a long way to get buy-in. Understanding universal principles of human behavior will help you tailor your approach instead of using language that might work in one situation but backfire in the other.

Brain Science Tips To Navigate Politically Charged Convos

If you’re ready to embrace “neuro leadership,” here are some tips to help you navigate politically charged work conversations as smoothly as possible.

1. Use buffers

At NeuroLeadership Institute, Rock and his team use “buffers” to help mitigate stressful conversations. “Buffers are strategies that put you in a more positive state during a potentially triggering situation. They provide a sense of certainty, relatedness, and reduce the chance of increasing the brain’s threat level,” he shares.

“For example, to raise certainty, at meetings, remind everyone that all voices are welcome. Employees will then be more likely to contribute to the discussion rather than keep ideas to themselves.”

2. Encourage deep listening

Deep listening is also a powerful tool, and Rock recommends facilitating a listening circle during controversial conversations. A listening circle is “a session where employees are invited to speak, one at a time, about whatever is on their minds while others listen with empathy, minimal judgment, and work hard to understand.”

The important thing here is that people are free to speak about anything they wish their leaders and peers could hear, including thoughts and experiences about equity, belonging, inclusion, race and other issues related to the workplace, says Rock. And the goal is to listen without adding your commentary.

“It’s important to note that a listening circle is not a dialogue–no one responds to experiences. Instead, they are avenues for one-way communication. This is where perspective-taking comes in: suspending your own frame of reference so you can see the world through others’ eyes.”

3. Give people choice

“When employees have the opportunity to choose, even if it’s a small decision, they feel engaged and like they have ‘skin in the game,’” according to Rock.

But what if you are adopting a decision that is not up for debate? Allowing people the space to make smaller choices can still help facilitate a constructive conversation.

“If there’s a controversial topic to discuss, leaders could give people the choice to go to a virtual town hall to listen to the discussion in a larger crowd or participate in a meeting that’s a smaller number. By providing opportunities for employees to decide, they can feel less threatened and more engaged.”

4. Focus on growth

Finally, your intention as you go into these discussions also matters. You don’t want to view them as “some sort of press conference to address employee grievances with platitudes,” says Rock.

Use them as an opportunity for growth. “Leaders should focus first on learning and understanding, then on reimagining—not with guilt about past blunders, but with hope and resolve, knowing that organizations, like people, can leverage difficult feedback to learn, change, and grow into something better than what they were before.”

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