ASA 011: De-Polarizing Dialogue

How to depolarize dialogue?

Monika Chutnik
De-Polarizing Dialogue

As a company, we are sometimes called in to deal with tensions in a team. Our facilitated interventions bring a good outcome, letting a team get over a point where people have stopped speaking to each other. And so far, we have always been able to bring a team to the point where they have planned some common future forward. But you can imagine that in some of these situations, the tensions are very strong, and we are always on search for better and more effective ways of working with tensions in a team.

And this is how I found a course on depolarizing dialogue this last summer in Groningen in Netherlands. I was learning how to let people start speaking to each other even in situations where the difference of standpoints seems to be enormous. And dialogue is the first step towards working out a solution. This is what I believe. This is also what I have witnessed in many teams that we have worked with and also been a part of.

The person who was facilitating that course was Maja Nenadović. I am so happy that she agreed to be my guest today. Maja is sharing her perspective on how to bring people to talk to each other also in virtual teams.


In this episode you will learn:

  • Why to have a dialogue in a workplace
  • What happens if we enter a dialogue
  • Why conflict is an opportunity
  • How to find courage to start a dialogue
  • Hints and tips for running a dialogue
  • Examples of useful questions
  • Role of HR in creating a dialogue
  • What is deep listening and why it is so important


Three major conclusions that I’m taking from this episode are:

  1. People with opposing views are not monsters. They are people just like anyone, and you can learn about them.
  2. Starting a dialogue means that you are in control.
  3. There’s a striking difference between listening with a purpose to counterattack and deep listening where you try to deeply understand the other person as a human being.


When you listen to this conversation, please think about who else might be happy to know what we are talking about and share with this person later on. I really care to be reaching the right people with my content, so thank you very much for this in advance.

I wish you fun and discovery!


Leave your comments below or on A Step Ahead LinkedIn profile. If you want to stay in touch, sign up for the newsletter and ✔follow A Step Ahead Podcast in your favourite streaming service 🧡.

If you need to educate leaders in how to create psychological safety in your remote teams, or if you would like to increase  inclusive leadership practices, or resilience of your employees – please contact us at ETTA


Additional materials:

  • Website: Depolarisation Activism for Resilient Europe
  • ASA 001: Human Centered Leadership – The Cure for Times of Change
  • ASA 003: Psychological Safety in a Virtual Team – 4 Steps to Mastery
  • ASA 004: What are Microaffirmations and why you want to have them in your team



Many managers suffer from the challenge of being in touch with their people, of keeping the relationship. And what becomes even more difficult is having a dialogue. What do we do in a situation when there is a polarized dialogue, when there is a situation which we do not agree with or that we see differently? How to run it? How to be effective in such a situation?

I have invited an amazing expert who can tell us a lot about how to do dialogue and, maybe even more importantly, how to depolarize dialogue in case it goes the wrong way. Maja Nenadović is my guest today.


Maja Nenadović is an experienced Monitoring-Evaluation-Learning and program design consultant, facilitator, civic education and human rights trainer. As a professional with 20 years of experience, she has worked in 40+ countries worldwide. Since 2012, she has implemented “Across Divides – Training Workshops for Depolarizing Communication”, a methodology that was developed and tested in the field through a series of workshops and dialogues with both those using discriminatory and hate speech rhetoric and with those targeted by it. Maja holds a PhD from the University of Amsterdam, on the subject of Monitoring & Evaluation in the area of democracy promotion and democratization projects. She is the co-founder of Reflectory, a boutique consultancy in the field of conflict transformation and social cohesion.


Why to have a dialogue in a workplace?

We spend a lot of time at our work. We have 24 hours in a day. Let’s assume we sleep 8 hours. That leaves 16. Out of those 16 waking hours, 8 of them are spent at work. So it means that 50% of your waking hours are spent in a working professional environment.



Some companies, if they avoid dialogue, if they avoid confronting difficult topics, if they avoid resolving topics, or trying to mediate them, what they’re in fact doing is they’re promoting fragmentation. We should try and find a way not to promote fragmentation of who we are.

I believe that all of our interactions would be healthier if we could simply be who we are everywhere. And by that, I’m saying not necessarily hide our opinions, but at the same time, to be able to agree to disagree in a civilized manner.



In my experience, when you avoid something, it doesn’t go away. The only thing that happens is that accumulates.

The whole idea with managing conflict and managing disagreement is that you’re managing it. Managers are supposed to also manage conflict and disagreements.

Why? Because you don’t want to get to a point where somebody explodes, because they feel that they’ve been quiet for too long and they can’t take it anymore.


Companies don’t exist in vacuum

It’s very important that we are able to discuss real life matters even inside a professional setting, because companies don’t exist in vacuum. Companies exist in a country, in a city, within a political sphere, within a set of cultural, sociocultural events. And in that sense, we can’t treat companies as though they are on some sort of alien planet, and it doesn’t concern them what happens in the country in which they operate or in the world in which they exist.


What happens if we enter a dialogue?

Dialogue in its simplest term is a joint effort at deepening our collective understanding of something. A conflict is not something that we should be afraid. I think it’s inevitable.

Entering into dialogue means that you acknowledge the other person’s humanity, their own autonomy and entitlements to their own opinions and beliefs.

And then you enter into a communication journey together, whereby you hope you’re going to reveal what is it that elevates the emotion so much surrounding a particular topic. In that sense, conflict is an opportunity.


Conflict is an opportunity

It’s an opportunity to resolve potential misunderstandings. But more than anything, it is an opportunity for you and me, as two individuals who are likely going to be working together for next X amount of years, to have a better working relationship.

Because you are not going to change in terms of your opinions. I am not going to change you. You’re most likely not going to change me. But I can approach you as a fellow human being. And maybe we can walk away from this interaction with the sense of a greater understanding that the people who believe in something that opposes our views are not monsters. They’re simply people.


How to find courage to start a dialogue?

I think that one thing that might encourage somebody to engage in dialogue is thay you are the one taking initiative. You are the one in control of trying to resolve the situation at hand.

This is also something that we can look at in terms of why would it be useful for us to try to step outside of the way we’ve always done things. And to try to do things a little bit differently. Because we might end up growing, evolving, changing ourselves. Change is inevitable. So does conflict.

Sometimes if we are embracing what is inevitable, we might actually end up enjoying the journey.


Changing the labels

It might be a little bit about the labels that we give to specific situations. When I hear a word conflict, I immediately get tense. I immediately get ready.

When we start preparing the “difficult conversations” program for the client, the one of the first things that we do is change the label. So instead of difficult conversations we choose, for example, conversations that matter or important conversations. When managers imagine this is going to be a difficult conversations, they get into this “fight or flight mode”, which leaves very little flexibility. And simply doesn’t lead to solutions. But when we change the label to important conversations, to meaningful conversations, the outcomes are so much better. And the managers are now so much flexible!


Label for “conflict”

The idea of changing the wording is important, because it encapsulates the fact that we all have an emotional or neurological response to certain words. And I think that’s very important to recognize. But at the same time, I’m quite careful about changing the language to the point where it stops having meaning.

I do believe that difficult conversations is a good example. I wouldn’t call them difficult. For me, they’re necessary conversations. I think you’re reframing them as meaningful, valuable, relevant. That’s very good.

When it comes to conflict, I would be okay with demoting it to disagreement, if that makes anybody happier, or less anxious. But at the same time, for me:

conflict is basically just this kind of a blank word that encapsulates any kind of absence of harmony.

I think that it’s most important that the group chooses its own words. So that you’re clear what it means and so that you choose the language that is the most optimal for having clarity and for not evoking too much anxiety. But at the same time, that is not too diplomatic or too vague so that it crosses the threshold of actually not being useful.


Power and positionality

One of the things that makes it more complex or complicated for managers is the fact that they need to be very, very mindful of their own positionality and power. Because power and positionality play a role within a professional setting. If you and I are equals, we might be more relaxed in expressing our opinions than we would be if one of us was each other’s boss or a supervisor. We should simply be mindful of it.



Another important thing is the element of freedom. By freedom, I mean people’s autonomy and willingness to participate.


Optional meetings

Sometimes when you call compulsory meetings, there is disagreement and resistance. You drag people out of their comfort zone and put them into a setting where they might even resent you for the fact that you did that.

If you are noticing elements of polarization in your company surrounding a particular topic, as you call a dialogue meeting, make it optional. Meaning, only those people who wish to attend are welcome. This is the first step.

Sometimes we think that we can just get everybody into a room and tell them how they’re supposed and not supposed to behave. And the problem will be solved. We can continue living our lives. But it doesn’t work that way. This is why I would definitely always advocate for the slower approach.


Anonymous system

It might happen that nobody shows up in your optional session. Then I would suggest creating some sort of anonymous system, for people airing their grievances, for people to give you their opinions without attaching their name to it. Then it’s okay to invite people for a joint meeting that is mandatory for everybody.

Why? Because you have given them the chance to voice their opinions prior. You announced them that “we want to hear you, we want to have a meeting about this, because we think this is important”. That process is incredibly important.

Dialogue is a process itself. And how you set up setting, the context, the space for such a dialogue is as important as the dialogue process itself.


Hints for 1:1 conversations


Do not take it personally

As an individual who is consciously entering a conversation with somebody who might not share your views on something, you pause and remind yourself that whatever is being stated in that conversation, you should not take personally. Because the person is just expressing their views. They’re not expressing their views as a way of aggravating or annoying you personally.



As the second step, you should listen. And you should listen while suspending judgment. You should listen by asking clarifying questions when you’re not sure that you understood something that was said. As you’re listening throughout, you should try as much as you can to find empathy and understanding for where the person is coming from.

When I say empathy, I don’t mean you’re supposed to legitimize or agree with the person.

The only thing I’m asking you is to acknowledge that the person you’re speaking to did not have your parents, did not grow up in the time and town that you grew up in, and does not have your life experiences. So, obviously, they have a different life path that led them to view things differently than you do.


Try to understand

Throughout this whole process of conversation, I want you to try to understand the assumptions on which their opinions are based. So that by the time you speak (ideally, you should only speak after you’re invited to speak and share your opinion), you speak in such a way that you try to refer to their examples, their words, experiences that they shared with you whilst you were listening to them in the previous step. And throughout this conversation, I want you to manage your own expectations and to remind yourself that you’re not trying here to change somebody’s mind. You’re here in order to try to understand them. You’re here in order to try to understand where they’re coming from. But you’re also engaged in this conversation primarily because you’re trying to evolve yourself and your own resistance. Whatever set of ideas this other person is expressing.


Human beings

You might end up talking to people who have ideas that scare you. You might end up talking to people who have ideas that are very, very much objectionable and something that attacks the core of your being. But even in those situations, I would still hope that throughout the conversation, you could find it in yourself, that you walk away from that dialogue having perceived that individual as a human being. And not as some sort of subhuman entity that is worthy of being expelled or dealt with.

Because this is the kind of opinions that we’ve had in our past in Europe. And these are the kind of opinions that we continue to have when it comes to individuals and groups whose opinions we don’t like. We have a tendency as a society to try to get rid of them. I think this is the kind of tendency that we need to acknowledge in ourselves and then try to find a way to have a different approach. Because getting rid of anybody is not a recipe for a happy society.


Useful questions

At first get the other person to tell you how they see the situation. Because sometimes the things that we ourselves find problematic, other people might not. So we need to be also open to the idea that if we might perceive something as a problem, other people might not perceive it as a problem at all. So then even having a conversation about it means that we’re starting off from very different starting points.

Some questions examples:

  • How do you see this?
  • How does it look like from your perspective? And why is it so?
  • How do these facts combine from your perspective?

Also try to use questions that force people to have empathy, because then you’re asking people to also a little bit step outside of themselves. I don’t want you to just map out their position. I want you to try to invite them to step into somebody else’s shoes. For example:

  • Why do you think that this is causing a situation for me, or for somebody else?
  • Can you imagine…?
  • Can we hypothesize together why you think that this might be showing up in the workplace as a potential problem?


How to live with differences in a team?

Research shows that diversity enriches companies. In terms of results, in terms of ideas, in terms of creativity. So in that sense, diversity is something that is cherished in companies. We want companies to reflect the diverse societies we have. We don’t want to have companies run by men 50+, and only having men 50+ working for them.

We need to have diversity in order to make sure that we don’t have blind spots.


DEI policy

But the problem with diversity, equity and inclusion as a system currently on the rise is that it’s being treated a little bit more as window dressing, rather than as genuine change. Meaning, if I have a diversity, equity, inclusion words written in my hiring policy, I’ve done that. If I hire three minority people, then great. I’ve done that. But this is not what DEI is.


DEI management

We’re expecting people to take on board and to deal with DEI issues without ever having given anybody training on how to do it. You might have done an MBA, you might have some experience with managing people, but then you’re put in a position where you’re supposed to also add DEI elements to your work. And let’s face it, you’re not necessarily trained in how to do this.


DEI trainings

I believe that some basic courses, conflict resolution training, mediation, dialogue trainings, would be useful for people who need to do DEI work or DEI elements in their work, but who don’t know how or where to start. We need to acknowledge the idea that sometimes DEI is done badly not because people have bad intentions or because people doing it are bad. It ends up being done badly because people are not trained in how to approach it properly. And because very often, companies don’t give sufficient support for genuine DEI work that is meant to result in happy, diverse stuff.


How HR can help managers to have more open dialogues

HR should find themselves more integrated within different departments. I think that they should find ways to organize check-ins. Because the HR team is really best suited to check-in with people at different levels. In order to pre-empt and detect stress, anxiety, competition, conflict, whatever word you want to use here, even before it comes to a manager’s attention. HR, if they were to assume this listening mode in a much more intentional way, could be a much more valuable piece of company puzzle than they are at the moment.


Deep listening

So it seems that the keyword of this episode is listening.

Here I would like to advocate deep listening. This is a listening form whereby I’m listening to you whilst fully trying to control any impulse I have to formulate my response to you. I’m listening just in order to understand who you are and where you’re coming from.

Deep listening is the kind of listening that involves asking clarifying questions, asking follow-up questions. Because if we can just pause, if we can just control our own desire to immediately insert our own perspective and our own opinion, we might end up getting to know somebody much better than we otherwise would have. And I think that this is always a gamble worth taking.


Thank you!



Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

Don't miss out on new content! Be Always A Step Ahead
Subscribe to my newsletter and receive notifications of new articles and podcasts. Don't forget to confirm your subscription by clicking on the email you will receive from me - only then will you really be among the recipients :-)

Comment on the podcast

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *