A space for our thoughts

Addressing Polarizing Issues at Work

Share This Post

Tensions are running high and emotions weighing heavy in many organizations right now. 

While many people think the problem is global affairs or elections, our decades of experience in DEI let us know that the real problem is our lack of ability to engage with each other over polarizing issues. 

Our team meetings and Slack channels are starting to look like boxing rings with folks in their corners getting ready to fight their biggest fight. We are losing sight that the other player in the ring is just as scared and uncertain as we are. 

I am on the ground in organizations every day, working with teams to break this pattern.

Here’s how I suggest we all get to be our highest selves at work starting right now: 

sidenote: I have many of these tips and strategies thoroughly outlined in our Israel-Palestine DEI Toolkit for a deeper dive. To access that toolkit click here.

Strategy 1: Engage with the person, not the issue

We form our perspectives on highly polarizing topics based on lived experiences, shaped by our identity, upbringing, cultural background, and even what we carry intergenerationally. These are of the most deeply personal parts of ourselves linked to our core identity factors. So disagreements about that type of issue transcends a simple difference of opinion. Disagreement leads to a sense of rejection and a threat to our belonging. 

This feeling is heightened in teams focused on social causes or driven by a shared mission, like those we work with at Hyphens and Spaces. In that type of environment, a disagreement can feel like a betrayal within a community that typically fosters a high sense of belonging.

When our sense of belonging is threatened, it is very easy to fall into an “us v.s. Them” duality where we further demonize those with opposing views, attributing undesirable qualities to them to bolster our own sense of pride and righteousness. For example, we may describe “their” perspective as heartless, evil, and villainous so that in converse we experience ourselves as compassionate, good, and heroic. It is easier, and seemingly just, to hold anger and distance from people with those attributes. This just exacerbates the polarization. 

We deal with that by focusing on the person rather than the issue or belief. We can get curious about how the human across from us came to the belief that they have, the journey, their story, and the values they are striving to live out. 

Strategy 2: Restore belonging with affinity spaces

The core principle to address this is recognizing the humanity in others. We must acknowledge that individuals, even with differing perspectives, are acting with good intentions based on their experiences and worldviews. By resisting the urge to dehumanize and instead viewing others as individuals attuned to their own perspectives and needs, we open up opportunities for continued engagement despite disagreements. 

We can do that by first creating affinity spaces. Affinity spaces are usually places with people who have shared identity factors (e.g. Muslim, Jewish, parents, Latine, etc.) convene around issues relevant to that community. In this situation, affinity spaces will focus on belief rather than identity. 

In these spaces, people, who have felt themselves be demonized by “the other” will have their humanity reaffirmed, for them to acknowledge the sources of their perspectives, and to clarify their intentions. These affinity spaces are essential to restore a feeling of belonging and neutralize defensiveness. When our humanity is affirmed and perspective validated, we are better able to engage in a similar process of affirming the humanity of the “other”, acknowledging the sources of the perspectives and their intentions. We don’t have to agree with them, but we now have an opportunity to empathize with them. 

Strategy 3: Holding duality 

In the process of reflecting on self and others, the real challenge and opportunity lies in holding the duality within ourselves – accepting our role as both good and part of “the problem”. This dual perspective allows us to see the same duality in others.

In essence, the ability to engage with others while maintaining empathy and understanding, even in the face of profound disagreements, offers the best chance for addressing the complex issues that affect us as humans. It doesn’t mean you have to change your beliefs or convictions, but it should shift your perception of someone with an opposing view.

In diverse environments, we need to coexist despite differences, and doing so well makes a more inclusive and resilient community. In times of heightened tension, this skill becomes not just a tool but a cornerstone for building bridges and fostering a culture of open dialogue and understanding.

In our constantly evolving world, where polarizing topics are on the rise, mastering the art of engaging in difficult conversations becomes an indispensable skill for any team or organization committed to navigating the complexities of our shared humanity. We can continually emphasize the art of engaging in difficult conversations without losing sight of empathy, perspective-taking, and humanization.

To learn more about how we at Hyphens and Spaces guide teams in developing these crucial skills, share your needs and book a call here.

Samira Abdul-Karim

Samira Abdul-Karim

Chief Executive Officer and Principal Consultant​

More To Explore

Shopping Cart