How to Manage Difficult Conversations Between Polarized People 

Our society and our workplaces are divided.  

Whether we’re talking about politics, upbringing, experience or other areas of difference, people are never going to fully agree.  

However, as we deal with the stress of differing views on highly charged news topics, many supervisors and managers are finding themselves refereeing conflicts over coronavirus, masks, race relations, protestors and more.  

As a manager, what’s your responsibility in managing these communications and relationships? You have several different sets of ideas to weigh in the balance:  

  • Your own personal beliefs and convictions 
  • The culture and social consciousness of your company 
  • Your relationships with your colleagues, and the relationships between team members 

 I’ve talked with many leaders who struggle because of the difficulty in defining the right path between these dilemmas, and how to balance their personal views with their employees’ rights to their own views, and with their legal responsibility as a manager/employer.  

 Unless you’re the owner, CEO, sole shareholder and sole employee of your company, you’re not going to be able to change attitudes or eliminate differences in viewpoints overnight. It takes a cultural shift to bring your team to a place of peace and, even then, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to eliminate opposing opinions.  

 Instead, leaders should focus on ways to bring peace and understanding to their teams; to find ways to show respect for one another even if everyone can’t agree to a single shared viewpoint.  

HR expert Karen Dudley-Culbreath and I recently discussed ways to communicate during charged conversations. In conversations designed to bring people together, focus on these areas:  

 1. Be Human 

No matter how off base you think someone’s views are, they’re all still human. They all have a heart and feelings. 

If they’re off base and making statement that are against policy, illegal or dangerous, that must be dealt with swiftly. If their comments are insensitive but don’t cross those previously mentioned lines, focus on ways to steer conversations toward being positive, uplifting and productive. 

You may not be able to force employees to change their stance on a strongly held belief, but you can ask them to focus on productive conversations and actions.  

For example, instead of cutting them off and demanding that an employee stop complaining about wearing masks in the workplace to prevent the spread of coronavirus, you could ask that they follow policy (whatever that may be at your company), then redirect efforts to other commonsense ways they can reduce the spread of illness.  

2. Be Open 

You don’t have to be open to statements that are hateful, prejudiced or bigoted.  

You do have a responsibility as a leader to observe the differences in opinions between yourself, your leaders, your colleagues and your employees. And you do have a responsibility to thoughtfully examine and discuss those differences of opinion.  

Are there similarities between you that you can use as a foundation? Acknowledge the value these differences bring to your organization, then figure out ways to leverage them for further success.  

It can be difficult to make ourselves trusting and vulnerable enough to be open to others’ viewpoints. However, as author Malcolm Gladwell says in Talking to Strangers, his book about relationships and the connections between people: “To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society. Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic. But the alternative—to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception—is worse.” 

Be willing to trust, rather than to look for ways to be divisive. Then, use your differences as leverage to innovate new paths forward.  

3.  Be Responsible 

Some leaders are afraid to say they’ve been wrong or that they need to change. However, that’s often where you see true leadership shine – when you’re willing to look inward, find ways to improve and share your growth challenges and opportunities openly.  

 Taking ownership or admitting mistakes doesn’t make you less of a person, or a less effective leader. Taking ownership gives you the opportunity to show that you’re human, that people’s opinions and attitudes can change, and that you’re introspective, emotionally intelligent and mature enough to make those changes happen.  

  • Have you treated all your teams and colleagues equitably? 
  • Have you, unknowingly or knowingly, been discriminatory or made team members feel excluded 
  • Have you made jokes or comments that could be construed as being unsupportive of your employees’ concerns 

While these questions are highly applicable in relation to national conversations around systemic racism, they’re also questions you can ask in a number of situations. For example:  

  • When I heard that Angela needed to leave early to watch her children when their school was out, did I make a joking comment that undermined her professionalism and dedication to work?  
  • Did I push this resume to the side because the name of the candidate looked “too weird” or “too foreign” or “too ethnic”? 
  • Did I plan an after-work event that didn’t take into consideration others’ needs or preferences, like a happy hour that excluded a team member in recovery or a spiritual-based event that didn’t include team members who worshipped differently?  

Take ownership for your decisions, remove your bias, and acknowledge your mistakes.  If your practices have been unfair, unjust or even exclusive to any segmentidentify and immediately mitigate.   

If you have not been diligent in your diversity and inclusion efforts, admit it. Ask yourself, “Have been fair and equitable for ALL populations in my organizationWhere have failed? Where has the organization failed?” Then, purpose to have conversations that acknowledge and capitalize on the opportunity to create positive change. 


 1. Create a platform for an open and safe dialog. Some managers have lunch bunches where they take a few employees out at a time for small conversations so they can feel more open to discuss their concerns. This approach can make sense if you keep it equitable and give everyone a chance to speak up.  

2. Outline your company’s position on creating safe environments. If your company hasn’t already outlined its viewpoint on safe and productive conversations, make those specifics official. You want to keep employees engaged and you want them to be able to hold each other accountable to a higher standard as well. 

3. Create an open dialogue. Keep an open door policy when it comes to tough topics. Nothing should be taboo unless it’s blatantly dangerous, unethical or illegal. The only way people will grow, evolve and change is if they’re nurtured and given resources to develop new behaviors. 

4. Diversity and Inclusion is a must. These conversations aren’t a substitute for diversity and inclusion; they’re another way to support your existing efforts and keep them at the forefront of employees’ minds.  

5. Carefully present your new attitude to employees. Think about how you want to express your commitment to change. You don’t want to shock employees, but if you feel you haven’t handled things the way you should have in the past, own up to it. Start with that admission, then let them know you are looking forward to growing together.  

6. Words are good, but actions are required too. As part of your connecting conversations, show employees that actions speak louder than words. Have a plan in place for ongoing conversations, including task forces, small teams and key leaders/advocates.  

 Just because you are working to find compromise in your workplace, that doesn’t mean you stop advocating for the change you want to see in the world. Instead, by creating a workplace that values respect and communication, you’ll be better able to share your viewpoints and demonstrate your commitment to a better world, because your people will be engaged and ready to listen.  

 Need some guidance in preparing for these charged conversations? Our Just In Time Coaches can work with you to develop the assertiveness, mindfulness and confidence you need to connect with your employees, engage them and lead positive change.