Recently, several friends and colleagues have said some version to me of, “This isn’t who I am, Richard. I’m not that kind of person, but honestly, I just don’t have any friends anymore who voted for [fill in the blank]. I just don’t know how to talk to them.” During the holidays, many of us are filled with dread fearing fraught conversations with friends and family who don’t share our views. 

Should we even have these conversations or are we better off continuing to avoid them? And if we do have them, how do we do it?  I’m in the business of co-. Co-creating, co-designing, co-managing, and co-llaborating to tackle some of the world’s most intractable problems. Yet, honestly, most of the time when I find myself in polite conversations with distant friends or relatives I duck and cover, avoiding politics at all. Just this week, my wife and I went to dinner with three other couples of varying politics and when the House impeached the President in the middle of dinner, I prayed no one else saw the news alerts.

Yet every day we see headlines that highlight the increasingly existential-ness of the many crises we face: economic, climate, political, social, diplomatic… We’re so bombarded by these different crises that Dictionary.com chose “existential” as its word of the year. When faced with both potentially existential challenges and an increasingly divided world, is “duck and cover” the best we can do? What if we can get only make the progress we need to by working with people who are not like us. While I know slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin said, “You don’t make peace with your enemies,” what if those “enemies” are at my holiday dinner table?

To get some insights on how to have difficult conversations with people who disagree with me and with whom I hope to have an ongoing relationship, I sat down this week with someone who deals with this challenge every day: Marian Salzman, the Global Head of Communications for one of the most controversial and divisive companies in the world, Phillip Morris International. I asked her how we can have more civil conversations this holiday and throughout the year. In her annual trends report — a report she’s published for going on two decades — she spotlights a number of trends that will shape the way we work, play, live, and collaborate. She offered four key lessons and insights on how to convene people who not only aren’t like you, but who disagree and even actively hate you, starting with:

  1. Reach out and reach across. Marian’s trends report points out that as a society while we are increasingly divided we also crave more co- in our lives: more co-creation, collaboration, etc. But, “[w]e want more collaboration in our own echo chamber,” she said, “…I want to collaborate with other people who are like me or who share my values…we reinforce with people who are like us.” So she recommends starting by breaking this pattern and inviting people who are not like you and who you know won’t agree with you.
  2. Break bread together. From time immemorial, humans have gathered around the fire with some bread (and booze) to not only make merry but also to heal old wounds. To make that happen at your own table, model civility. At Phillip Morris, “[w]e stage open mic nights, open dialogues inviting people to come share a good meal with us and tell us why they don’t agree. Really take us to task but face to face and with a level of politeness…come break bread with us,” Marian told me.
  3. Model civility while standing firm. When it comes time to have the tough conversations, “I’m not asking you to agree with me,” Marian told me. “I’m asking you to have a civilized conversation with me so we can agree to disagree at the end.” And she knows this from experience. “There are people who hate me today simply because I work for Phillip Morris International… and I have to recognize that everyone is not going to love what I’m doing and I have to be sure enough of my own points of view that I can stand up for myself or also know when to turn another cheek.”
  4. Hug it out at the end. In very first trend in her report, “Desperate for touch” Marian points out that while our digital devices connect us more and more with people far away, we also find ourselves increasingly out of touch and out of reach from people near to us and when it comes to engaging with people who disagree with us, she suggests taking a cue from today’s youth leaders, like Malala Yousefzai, Greta Thunberg, and others. She says, “[t]his group understands the use of humor and kindness. If there’s a subtext to their message it’s not ‘blow them up’ it’s ‘give them a big hug’. So before everyone leaves for the night, be sure to end it with a bit of humor and, ideally, a warm hug.

To Marian’s suggestions, I’ll add one of my own: ask lots of questions. Instead of just talking “at” each other, really try to understand the other person’s point of view by asking them lots of questions. Anger isn’t a primary emotion. More often than not, it derives from fear: fear of loss, fear of looking bad. Ask questions like, “Why do you feel that way?”

You can listen to our whole discussion below. You can download her report by clicking here.