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Roaring river

For months, I’ve heard many people say, “I can’t wait until the elections are over.” While I understand the sentiment (it’s been an exhausting political season), all the rifts and hard feelings have not magically mended with the conclusion of the presidential election. If anything, the nation is as fraught as ever. How can we possibly bridge the gulf between people and start working together once more? What can you, as an individual, do?

I have a few thoughts:

1. Focus on People

No matter how different someone’s ideology is from your own, there’s a person behind the ideology. Start seeing that person as someone who loves and is loved–someone who has a family, friends, hopes and fears, financial troubles, and health issues. This is a person who pays a mortgage or rent, occasionally burns the pizza, and gets annoyed when their socks get wet from the rain.

In short, see the human behind the ideology. If we all started to do that, I guarantee our conversations would become more civil and we would find some common ground.

2. Focus on the Work

When it comes to co-workers, you may not agree 100% of the time, but you can always turn your attention to your common work assignments. When we collaborate with others and focus our energy on a shared project or initiative, we can set aside political differences for a time and start seeing others as co-workers, collaborators, and co-brainstormers. Recognizing that we CAN work alongside others and agree on certain things (no matter how trivial) is a big step toward mending larger rifts.

3. Spend Time With Individuals

One way to bridge a gap between yourself and someone with whom you do NOT see eye-to-eye is to meet with that person individually. In my experience, when you’re sitting across the table from someone, it is easy to find at least a few things you have in common, and focus on those things instead of your differences. You might talk about your family, your pets, the latest book you’ve read or show you’ve watched, or even the weather. Though you might think such surface-level conversations are meaningless, they’re truly not. Bridging gaps takes time, and it starts with individuals seeing the humanity in one another.

4. Find Commonalities

Instead of focusing on the things that divide us, focus on what unites us. At our core, most of us want the same things: Clean air and water, a healthy family, safety, good schools for the next generations, a decent job, affordable housing…the list goes on. Though many of us agree on the big picture goals, we get bogged down by how to meet those goals. THAT is where much division comes into play. We disagree about the methods for reaching those universal goals.

Once you realize that, you begin to see that “the other side” might not be so different from you after all. They probably want the same things in their lives, they just disagree on the means to get there.

Yes, I DO understand this is an over-simplification. Some differences between people and parties are significant, and it may be nearly impossible to reconcile them. However, I still think we can find commonalities between ourselves and those on the other side of the spectrum. We just have to look for them.

Though you may be feeling like a small fish in a wild, raging ocean, take heart! If we all decide to work toward relative harmony and understanding, we can get there eventually. Start recognizing the human behind the ideology, and go from there. Your example CAN make a difference.


MARGARET SMITH IS A CAREER COACH, AUTHOR, INSIGHTS® DISCOVERY (AND DEEPER DISCOVERY) LICENSED PRACTITIONER, AND FOUNDER OF UXL. SHE HOSTS WORKSHOPS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED CAREER OR PERSONAL GUIDANCE. 
CHECK OUT MARGARET’S ONLINE LEADERSHIP COURSE.

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It seems that, with each passing year, our country is becoming more and more divided and less able (or willing) to understand each other’s perspectives. That’s a shame, because a little empathy can make an enormous difference. When we understand where people are coming from, what they believe, and why they operate the way they do, we can build bridges, instead of putting up walls. We can make progress instead of becoming gridlocked.

I have found that I can find common ground with anyone, no matter how different we are. I can sit across the table from that person and have a perfectly civil conversation. We all have the power to do this, we simply need to follow a few simple guidelines:

Start with Common Ground

It’s always easier to ease into a conversation once you’ve established some rapport and some common ground with the other person. Are you both fond of cooking? Do you both have children? Do you enjoy hiking? Or artwork? Or gardening?

Ask questions and be willing to open up and volunteer information about yourself. Connecting with others takes a measure of vulnerability on both sides.

Ask Questions

Empathy starts with caring about the other person and their point of view. Be curious. Ask open-ended questions (instead of yes/no questions) and get the other person to open up. Be intentional about your question-asking tactics and don’t ask questions with the intention of picking a fight.

Listen

The other half of asking good questions is practicing active listening. It’s great to ask questions, but if you don’t listen to the answer, you’re not going to get anywhere. Oftentimes, we ask questions, thinking we already know the answer. But, it’s possible (even probable) you do NOT know the answer! In fact, it’s best to assume you don’t know the answer to a question when you ask it. That forces you to pay attention and truly listen to what the other person has to say.

Pick Your Battles

It is difficult to change another’s mind over the course of a single conversation. Besides, that shouldn’t be the goal of your interaction in the first place. The goal is understanding. Hopefully, once you’ve demonstrated empathy and a willingness to listen to another’s point of view, that person will behave in kind. If it seems appropriate to share your perspective, start with a bridge-building sentence. For instance:

“I understand you feel X about Y. I see the situation a little differently. This is my point of view…”

If the atmosphere begins to feel hostile and the other person starts putting up walls, that’s a sign that the conversation is going nowhere. If that’s the case, there’s no harm in changing the subject. You’re not giving up; you’re recognizing that traveling further down this road would be futile. Better to end the conversation with some mutual understanding and respect than to push it into hostile territory.

I firmly believe that empathy is the missing tool many of us need to build bridges and establish mutual understanding. Be the bigger person—extend empathy first. Aim for understanding, ask questions, be a tad vulnerable, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll start a dialogue and encourage people to come together to solve problems, instead of fighting across the aisle.


MARGARET SMITH IS A CAREER COACH, AUTHOR, INSIGHTS® DISCOVERY (AND DEEPER DISCOVERY) LICENSED PRACTITIONER, AND FOUNDER OF UXL. SHE HOSTS WORKSHOPS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED CAREER OR PERSONAL GUIDANCE. 
CHECK OUT MARGARET’S ONLINE LEADERSHIP COURSE.

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People can be full of advice. “Do this,” “do that,” “this worked for me,” “this didn’t work for me.” Sometimes it’s difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. For the most part, you simply have to forge ahead and use your best judgment. But sometimes, others will give you truly valuable gems that you should take to heart.

One of the best pieces of career advice I ever received was ask good questions. Try to ask three questions at every important meeting: one that shows support, one to gain clarity on the subject, and one to demonstrate inclusionary behavior (helping to involve others in the room in the discussion). Asking good questions not only helps to gather information, it also demonstrates that you are an active, interested, and inclusionary employee. Additionally, you’ll be seen as a fair leader–someone who wants others voices to be heard, as well as their own.

Another great piece of advice I’ve received? Stay relevant. Know what’s important to the organization, the market, the customers. Study and stay abreast of industry happenings and innovations, strategies, issues and concerns…then look for solutions and speak up! Show that you’re interested in your job and are striving to be the best you can be by constantly learning and seeking new, salient information.

What are some of the best pieces of career advice you’ve received? Has anything really stuck with you and helped you either advance in your career or guided you through career challenges? I’m interested to hear from you! Leave a comment below and let’s start a friendly, valuable discussion.

Margaret Smith is a career coach, author, Insights® Discovery (and Deeper Discovery) Licensed Practitioner, and founder of UXL. She hosts WORKSHOPS for people who need career or personal guidance.
NOW LIVE: Check out Margaret’s NEW online Leadership Course.

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