It’s all too easy to develop a grudge, and let one bad experience inform how you view a person going forward. But as leadership expert Angie McArthur says, “The more certain we are, the more stuck we will remain.” A moment of broken trust can compound into a closed mind, but to loosen up that knot, revisit the experience and ask yourself: how subjective is your narrative of the events? What was going on in your life at the time—and what may have been going on in theirs? “You can’t change people,” says McArthur, “…but you can respect yourself and you can at least let them have the experience of being respected.” When you start to see conflict as a diversity of ideas rather than targeted opposition, it becomes an enormous opportunity for growth and perspective taking. Here, McArthur speaks with diversity and inclusion expert Jennifer Brown about taking stock of past disagreements and mining them for growth opportunities. This live conversation was part of a recent New York panel on diversity, inclusion, and collaboration at work. Angie McArthur is the co-author of Reconcilable Differences: Connecting in a Disconnected World.
Angie McArthur: Often I hear, “I don’t want to be around that person because I don’t trust them anymore.” And so my question to them—and I’ve seen this at the very top of some of the largest companies, globally—is: what caused that trust to break down? And we each interpret even that word “trust” differently. And so you have to break it down into behaviors. So when you’re trying to reconnect with someone, it means going back to what initially caused that break to happen and question your bias on many levels, including how you envision the break down in trust to happen. And I think it’s the word “respect”—actually the root of it—means the ability to see one as if for the first time again.
And I think we have to all challenge ourselves to know that because someone was difficult in one situation or even multiple situations it doesn’t mean they’re going to be difficult forever. That we’re constantly working on this ability that we all have, and this necessity we all have to connect, and maybe there’s multitudes of other things going on, but to constantly come back to that place of, “Okay, what do I need right now, here in this moment, to build connection with this person?”
Jennifer Brown: That’s such good advice. I would add: forgiveness is powerful. I’d say second and third and fourth chances, and I agree with you that people change. So how somebody was in a particular context or situation might not have been their best self. There may have been intervening circumstances. So I don’t think we can—can we ever really say that “someone is this way with me and I know that it’s a fact”? I’ve really learned that there’s no door that’s ever really closed— unless I think it is, and sometimes I’m wrong. Many times I’m wrong about that. So I do really challenge myself to look at every situation and person anew as often as I can. And sometimes that includes forgiveness, it includes the acknowledgement that maybe your opinion about what happened is a subjective one, and may not be the reality.
Angie McArthur: Yes, and it comes back to, always: the more certain we are, the more stuck we will remain. So if I am certain a person is a certain way, shows up a certain thing, that creates this, you know—it creates certainty. So again, it’s shifting from certainty to discovery. And I’m not saying this is easy. It’s difficult.
I’ve been in some of the literally toughest conversations with people where someone is so—what we literally would say is absolutely closed-minded. Like it doesn’t matter what I say or do, they are of that opinion. They are so certain.In that moment you do need to ask yourself: How do I want to leave this conversation? I know I have enough self-respect and respect for the work of diversity and inclusion that I want to leave this person with, ‘I hear where you are coming from and I hope one day you will be able to listen to where I’m coming from.’You know, so it’s always that question: how do you want to leave that conversation, with that sense of self-respect? That's ultimately what is so important. You can’t change people in that moment. But you can respect yourself and you can at least have them have the experience of being respected. They may not be able to show the same to you, but we have to be willing to be okay that we don’t agree, but it doesn’t mean we disrespect one another or have to disconnect.Because until we can bridge and find these places where we can connect, where our differences lie will eventually hopefully be the places we can bridge. Not right out the door; we may have to connect on other things first.
The name of my company is Professional Thinking Partners and that is a very specific way in which we can all start bridging diversity, is invite thinking partners into your life who are as different from you as you can possibly imagine. Call them. Ask them: “Here’s a problem I’m facing. How would you approach it?” You know, we talked earlier about mentorship and sponsorship; I love creating thinking partnerships with the people who are the most different than me because that perspective, you know—that’s a way that we can also start to build these bridges.
Jennifer Brown: Thank you so much. Fascinating.