Don’t Interrupt or Argue: Listen, Offer Grace, Understanding and Empathy

Just in case you missed it, the first letter of each word in the title of this article spells DIALOGUE.

I felt compelled to create this acronym and write this piece because it occurred to me that perhaps as a collective society, we have forgotten what dialogue is; or worse yet, we never really learned how to demonstrate its meaning to begin with.

Engaging in constructive dialogue requires that we — as adults — have self-control and choose not to give in to the temptations of interrupting and arguing. True dialogue requires that individuals listen to each other and show grace and kindness while seeking to understand and putting ourselves in each other’s shoes. Easier said than done, right? Of course it is. Otherwise, CNN’s pre-thanksgiving poll this year would not have found 53% of Americans dreading the idea of talking politics over Thanksgiving dinner.

I was actually surprised this figure was not higher because as adults, we have lost our civility and as I stressed in my book, It’s Not Always Racist…but Sometimes It Is: Reshaping How We Think About Racism (2014, Archway Publishing) we don’t know how to engage in open, honest and sustained dialogue about issues without them spiraling into arguments.

So, I am not shocked that another recent CNN poll found that 85% of people believe our country is more deeply divided on major issues facing the country than it has been in the past several years. This isn’t concerning because since when are we all supposed to agree on everything? The beauty of diversity is having differing opinions from different people. However, what is concerning and not beautiful is disrespectful, condescending and incendiary remarks that create discord and greater divisions.

As a diversity consultant and trainer of workplace leaders and employees, I come from the school of thought that people should agree to disagree. In fact, I believe it is arrogant for someone to tell another that his or her thinking is wrong. Who are you to tell someone that what she believes is wrong? We all have our own “truths” that are shaped and influenced by our experiences, as well as our exposure and openness to new and different things and people. So it is futile to try and convince someone not to believe what he believes.

That said, I do believe that as adults, we should learn to be open to considering other perspectives. I also made this very point in my book, It’s Not Always Racist…but Sometimes It Is when I said the following:

Have you ever had the experience of engaging in dialogue with someone and when you disagreed with his or her side, the person took it personally, reacted in anger, and blew things out of proportion? Or perhaps you might be one of these people? A person who reacts in this manner to simple discourse is someone who cannot separate his or her emotions and self-worth from their beliefs.

This is a problem!

It is…a good idea to separate our beliefs and our emotions from our sense of self-worth. It is dangerous to connect your sense of self-worth to your belief systems, because what happens when your beliefs are challenged or disproved? What do you have left?

Therefore, while engaging in dialogue, individuals should make a concerted effort not to take things personally. If someone disagrees with you or asks you to reconsider your beliefs, it should not be taken as a personal attack.

We need to get to a place where our identities are not threatened whenever our ideologies are called into question. Otherwise, our sense of self-worth will never be anchored, nor will it grow. It will instead continue to whimsically blow with the wind from side to side in accordance with whether or not others agree or disagree with our opinions. This is a life of unbalance. We should be secure enough in ourselves to consider the perspectives of others without feeling threatened and be willing to move and grow.

In general, while engaging in dialogue, emphasis should always be placed on arguing the facts about an issue as right or wrong, rather than telling a person he or she is right or wrong and wielding a personal attack in order to get your point across.

Given the inherently combustible nature of discussions across differences, before I facilitate professional development workshops, or moderate panel discussions on hot-button issue like gender, politics or race (as I have done several times this year), I always stress this expectation of respectful dialogue. As leader of these discussions, I take my role and my behavioral expectations very seriously. In fact, I always forewarn my audiences that I believe in accountability and that my goal after each discussion is for every person leaving to have their sense of dignity in tact. With this goal in mind, I do not hesitate to jump in where necessary and respectfully probe, interrupt and challenge any incendiary or insulting behaviors.

Likewise, if you are a leader in any type of workplace, whether at a school or a business, you have to be skilled, ready, willing and comfortable addressing sensitive issues because your employees don’t go to work in a vacuum. They don’t just check their emotions at the door, especially after such a grueling two-year election that culminated in one side being completely deflated, and the other, elated without containment! So if you are not comfortable speaking about issues, I encourage you to become “comfortable with your discomfort,” as I said in my book. The way this past election stirred up issues and created deep divisions, I am sure we will continue to have a lot to talk about in the coming weeks, months and years.

In any case, I find it very odd that more discussions about the election have not been had a work — especially during this workplace zeitgeist that encourages and supports the emergence of Employee Resource Groups (ERG) groups based on social identities like race, gender, generation and sexual orientation. Aren’t political identities a part of people?

Leaders need to pay attention and be ready to openly address and talk about issues with employees because gone are the days of our hush-hush approach to political discussion. There is no longer a clear demarcation between politics and work. This is evidenced by many public headlines over the last few months that include Gretchen Carlson’s very public workplace sexual harassment case; and also public debates over equal pay for women after a gender gap in Hollywood was revealed by the Sony hacking scandal; and also President Obama’s efforts to bridge the gender pay gap.

Moreover, the troubling rise in the number of reported racial incidents since the election of Donald Trump as president is very much on the minds of many people, and no one checks their experiences at the door when they go to work every day. Feelings about swastikas drawn on churches, cars and college campuses, accompanied by messages like “Heil Trump” and “The white man is back in power,” as well as the rise of Islamophobia and fear of losing rights under a new administration — not to mention, mass protests in the streets and incidents of terrorism — don’t stop affecting people during the hours of 9–5.

Inevitably, whether a leader chooses to acknowledge these issues or not, he or she has to understand that they factor into the workplace environment because they are on the minds of employees. That said, I understand the apprehension of leaders addressing issues because as I have stressed, we need to start practicing what it means to engage in constructive, respectful dialogue.

Dionne Wright Poulton, Ph.D is an author (It’s Not Always Racist…but Sometimes It Is), podcast host (“The Dr. Dionne Show”), and diversity and inclusion consultant with 15 years of experience specializing in adult education, adult learning and behavior, intercultural dialogue, and addressing and mitigating bias in the workplace. Learn more about her at and follow her on Twitter@drdionnepoulton.