How to Keep Opinions from Undermining Teams

We are rightly taught to be free thinkers. Opinions can offer an individual voice of conscience that can help influence social change, temper recklessness, or even shape the future. Opinions can also be destructive. In the extreme, they can be so strong and alienating that they will undermine trust and fracture relationships. They may or may not be built on a healthy premise, but an unhealthy expression can also make them subtly offensive. Here are some important questions to ask when considering the impact of opinions and how to best handle them in others, so as to bring better overall team health.

1. Who Keeps the Bridge?

‘None shall pass’ was the gruff cry of the black knight opposing King Arthur’s passage across a bridge in his quest for the Holy Grail. Some people’s actions and comments just should not pass, but which ones? Who decides?

What we ourselves might express doesn’t always need to be said. Consider what type of person could be offended, then whether people present could potentially refer the comment to them (or even be the very ones immediately offended). How does the proposed comment sit with you now? Does it change the way you might express yourself or even value your relationships?

What others say doesn’t always need our engagement either. Quite simply, we just don’t have to react to every inappropriately expressed emotion or comment. We don’t need to take the bait. It’s not important to resolve every issue and some are just not worth our own emotion being stirred or the damage that can ensue.

Issues that threaten relationships or cut across important personal or team values may certainly need some comment or redress, but we don’t sweat the small stuff.

Our offence over not being understood will often make unwarranted mountains out of proverbial molehills, too. If we can’t (or shouldn’t) talk about these objectively, we have to let them go lest they harm us, in which case a discussion will be needed after all.

Others will themselves refuse to engage with our issues on occasions, though, because they simply don’t agree with us and they don’t feel the need to have to convince us of that fact. Sometimes, too, they have no idea that there is an issue. We have to be careful, then, with our assumptions about people and with presuming motives or meanings that do not, or at least may not, exist.

Of course, stopping life’s traffic at our own bridge of decision on too many occasions can mean that the quarrels involved will weary other travellers who may well decide they don’t want to pass our way again, so to speak.

Some things just aren’t worth our angst. Some relationships just aren’t worth losing over matters that could easily pass.

2. How Much Does Respect Really Matter?

Opinions can often be voices seeking approval instead of acknowledgement. This may be less about the rightness and necessity of the view at hand and more about either being an important contributor in the setting or about controlling outcomes for our own needs and purposes. A past lack of affirmation can sometimes therefore fuel some extra heat in opinions that expressed more strongly than might ordinarily be expected.

Where there has been disrespect in the past, each new circumstance can seem in the present to reinforce such a lack. This may prompt a disproportionate harshness. Such a link cannot be presumed, but we can be sensitive to its possible existence in others and find a gentler path to the hearts of those whose abrasive edge may therefore be protecting a surprisingly softer side.

And if such responses are sometimes found in us, too, how hurt might we actually feel if believing that others are disrespecting us? Perhaps more than we might admit. This needs attention, because any tendency to be defensive or attacking can produce opinionated-ness (or unfair treatment of people) which seems to others to be little more than arrogance.

Of course we all want and need a base level of respect. More is earned, though. Some is easily lost. Where it is not given, irrespective of any injustice, we have to ask why it would really matter if we are internally secure.

Too many people are unaware of the damage their own know-all tone can bring to others. Maybe other people should speak their mind like they do. The problem is that most don’t and would prefer to shrink away from perceived conflict. Opinionated people may have very valid views, but they often just need to express them better. For their own sake, they may need to learn how to win friends and influence people, showing mature empathy within their disagreement.

3. Head or Heart?

Some people who alienate others with an argumentative edge do feel passionately about their views. How much do these really matter, though? Do we not sometimes take ourselves so seriously that, even when something is important, we are really just trying to win people’s heads rather than their hearts?

After all, arguments are generally won at the head level only when first winning people at the heart level. This is a form of change management which is led by influence and not just information.

Out-rationalising someone can sometimes provoke them to resentment, anyway. Deferring our own intellectual victory is often a moral one. It is worth noticing that well-liked and respected people often keep their cards close to their chests, preferring not to declare their hand early and ruin the game. This is an observation heeded by those protecting their gambling stakes, but it is also important in the people stakes to avoid losing your ‘interest’.

Proverbs 17:27-28 suggests that the knowledgeable should be people of few words and that even fools are counted wise when they keep quiet. James 1:19 similarly advises us to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.

Our own responses to people really do need more discretion and less agitation if we are to hear them and win hearts.

Of course, good friends pull each other aside and have difficult conversations that point out the effect of being a poor follower, an insensitive agitant, or an irritating over-talker. Ironically, it is where such people don’t respond to such advice that they sometimes need a stronger opinion coming back at them because avoiding harm to others becomes the greater good.

Conversations that are difficult need to demonstrate care for the individual in how they are conducted, as well as for those they impact. Having tough conversations, though, is less about sharing an opinion and more about exchanging ideas safely and exploring needs healthily.

Helping others see what they don’t, but need to, is not therefore about out-arguing them. Raw opinions are overwhelmed by love in action that may not always win the day, but does always try…in my humble opinion!

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