October 29, 2020

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #39 – Stakeholder Engagement – Curiosity, Boundaries, Humility: The Art of Discussing Emotionally Charged Topics

By Rob Andrews


This article features paraphrased content from Joseph Grenny’s October 21, 2020 article in Harvard Business Review.

Discussions around politics have always been challenging in the workplace, but never more than now. In the past, the goal was to avoid escalation. Today the conversation often starts heated.

Imagine you’re on a Zoom call discussing accelerating a project deadline when your colleague, “Ted,” says, “This is a product release, not a vaccine.” And that was the fourth time he had injected politics in this meeting. You can tell others feel he’s not just making jokes but pushing his opinions. What should you do?

No one wants to get into a heated debate with their coworkers. Fortunately, there are ways to venture into these topics that both yield a much higher likelihood of healthy dialogue and leave you an exit strategy if necessary. It’s possible to talk openly about far more controversial issues than we think, as long as you bring three things to the conversation: curiosity, boundaries, and humility.

Joseph Grenny, writing for the Harvard Business Review, tells a story about being in London and hailing a taxi from Gatwick to his hotel. When the driver heard Joseph, he turned and said, “You have an American accent. Are you American?” When he replied “Yes,” the driver looked back at him, and with great vehemence yelled a curse on the U.S. President.  Joseph considered ignoring the comment, but he thought, “I should be able to do this. I should be able to talk to someone with a strong opinion even if I don’t fully agree.” The driver quickly moved into a lengthy indictment of U.S. foreign policy. His voice got louder, and his face redder, the more he spoke. He paused only long enough to draw a breath and it was clear he had plenty of material to fill up the 45-minute drive.

Ironically, Joseph was in London to lecture about a book he had co-authored about politically and emotionally risky conversation. Given his itinerary, Joseph felt a special obligation to practice what he was about to preach. So, he committed to turning the remaining 40 minutes into a meaningful dialogue. Remarkably, it worked. He knew once he got to his hotel that he wouldn’t have to see the driver again, but he was still invested in having a civil, and even productive, conversation.

The next time you find yourself drawn into a discussion with someone who has strong political views, whether it’s a stranger or your colleague from another department, here are the three things to bring with you.


The way to turn conflict into conversation begins with curiosity. Showing genuine curiosity is an underutilized interpersonal skill. It’s remarkable to see how quickly a heated debate de-escalates when one party begins sincerely inquiring into the views of the other. And almost always there’s a tipping point when the one being authentically heard involuntarily reciprocates.

Consider the example from the beginning of this article, with your colleague Ted. Once your call ends, you could invite Ted to hang on to the connection for a moment. Then start with something like, “Hey Ted, four times in the meeting you made comments that sounded like you were expressing your political views. If at some point you want to discuss those, I’m all ears.”

You don’t have to renounce your views to practice curiosity. All you have to do is set them aside. Don’t worry, you can pick them back up as soon as the conversation is done. But if you’re simultaneously clinging to your opinions while conversing with others about theirs, you’ll do justice to neither task. You shouldn’t consider your curiosity satisfied until you understand the integrity of their position: how the experiences, perspective, and information they bring leads sensibly to the conclusion they hold.


The problem with Ted’s offhanded comments in your meeting is the fact that he was turning a business meeting into a political platform. As you invite Ted into a conversation, you should also ask him to honor meeting boundaries. Assuming Ted shows an interest in sharing his views with you, you should first add, “And Ted, can I ask that in the future you avoid those kinds of comments in our meetings? That’s not the time or place for it. Okay?”

Setting boundaries at the beginning of a conversation is also helpful if you’re worried it might go off the rails. Before jumping into opinions, first, set the table. Ask for agreement on some boundaries, or ground rules that will keep things civil and balanced. Even people who disagree wildly about specific policies can usually agree quickly on simple rules of civil discourse. And if you gain their agreement before emotions escalate, they’ll often self-monitor in a way that keeps things at least somewhat healthy. And if they don’t, be sure you set a boundary about how you’ll handle it when someone violates the rules you’ve set together.

We might learn about how to set these boundaries from Joseph’s example. To establish boundaries, with his driver, Joseph made his request both clear and equitable. “I’m very interested in hearing your views,” Joseph said. “I may agree with some of them but disagree with others. But I want equal time. Can we agree that you get the first 10 minutes, then I get the next 10 minutes? If either of us feels we’re not having a productive talk, we’ll stop and ride quietly to my hotel. If it goes well, we might both be a little smarter when we’re done. Deal?” The driver laughed heartily and said, “That’s a deal.”


If you come with curiosity, you will almost always leave smarter. But only if you bring the third ingredient: humility. When you begin to genuinely inquire into others’ experiences, it’s rare not to find things that surprise you, teach you, and improve you. The sobering truth is that we don’t arrive at many of our most cherished opinions starting with a blank page. Whether we are Christian or Muslim, conservative or liberal, prefer Coke or Pepsi, our ideas are shaped more by the groups we identify with than the facts we sift through.

When we listen sincerely to others, we’re often humbled as we recognize how fragile the foundation of our convictions can be. When that happens, have the integrity to concede those points. The more you point out areas of agreement, especially ones that involve relinquishing of previously cherished “facts,” the more likely the other person is to feel safe doing the same.

If you are truly humble in your conversation, feelings of derision are evidence that your motive is to convert rather than learn. So be aware and challenge that gut reaction. Try to avoid approaching the conversation to pass judgment. Approach it to understand how the other person’s world works.

Next time you cringe with apprehension when a colleague seems intent on bringing politics into a workplace conversation, take a breath. Then replace your judgment with curiosity. Consider putting up boundaries that move the conversation to the proper time and place, increase the likelihood of balanced dialogue, and provide an off-ramp if needed. Swap certainty for humility. Perhaps these practices won’t immediately bring about world peace, but they’ll certainly increase the likelihood of meaningful conversation at work.

We hope that this piece has been interesting, thought-provoking, and perhaps even useful. Our work is about building cultures of peak performance and we would love to be your thought partner. A workshop on celebrating differences can go a long way toward building a team that engages in healthy debate and decision making. Give us a call.

Warmest Regards,