“It’s not polite to talk about politics, money or religion.” Like most Americans, this was the advice I was given growing up. It was meant as advice to help avoid awkward conflict and it sent a clear message – some topics are too personal to discuss openly. For many years, I followed it carefully. I didn’t want to offend anyone. Most of us don’t.

But what if this advice has the opposite effect than it intended? What if by avoiding the hard conversations we’ve stunted our ability to open up and really see each other? Collaboration and community voice are hot topics at corporate and nonprofit organizations alike right now. Every business recognizes the importance of centering on the needs of people – but I wonder if our norms have conditioned us to avoid the vulnerability that it often takes to get there.

When we ‘bring people to the table’ and cultivate a group with varying experience, controversy is inevitable. The diversity of life experiences that add richness to a conversation is precisely what can create tension. But what if we didn’t see that tension as an obstacle to overcome but as the secret sauce that makes a conversation worthwhile?

Earlier this year, I saw firsthand how embracing tension can lead to stronger outcomes when Helen Hope Kimbrough and I began collaborating closely on community stakeholder and messaging efforts. Our team has always centered personas and their needs in our messaging efforts, but Helen’s efforts have helped us test those messages more intentionally, and directly, with stakeholders in a way that inspires trust, vulnerability – and controversy.

In one recent project, we came up with a core message we thought was obvious and universal – “everyone loves trees.” This message was based not only on the research but also on interviews with stakeholders themselves. As Helen checked these messages with those stakeholders and focus groups, she heard loud and clear: we were wrong. It turns out that not everyone loves trees and that like most things in life, people have a range of experiences that inform those feelings and decisions.

Had we not asked the question and been willing to lean into challenging responses, we would have been left with a campaign that didn’t resonate with the people it aimed to reach. Instead, those conversations that exposed differing opinions enabled us to shift this messaging to a more nuanced, thoughtful statement that resonated with the stakeholders and strengthened the entire campaign.

What if we were able to bring this same embrace of tension to other collaborations? 

You may recall that our team is reading Impact Networks by David Ehrlichman. It outlines the importance of cultivating trust in a group in order to break through barriers to vulnerability and achieve effective conversations and outcomes.

“Priya Parker uses the term ‘good controversy’ reminding us that “harmony is not necessarily the highest and certainly not the only value in gathering.” Good controversy leads groups to push beyond the status quo, advances creative thinking and helps networks grow.”

The Risk of Avoiding Controversy

When we avoid the hard conversations – or don’t bring a variety of perspectives to the conversation – we risk losing the depth and richness those conversations bring when addressing a challenge. Good controversy pushes us to more innovative outcomes and pulls us out of tired thinking. When we avoid tension, we risk:

  • Shallower outcomes – Avoiding tension may make us feel better in the short term but it often means that we are working in an echo chamber. Embracing the awkwardness of a challenge pushes us to think more broadly and to take more perspectives into account, leading to innovative solutions built from the wisdom of the crowd.
  • Stunted trust – Polite conversation might be good for cocktail parties – but not for real problem-solving. Vulnerability breeds trust, which means we need to feel comfortable bringing our authentic selves to the conversation. When we don’t create safe, open spaces for this vulnerability to take place, we are missing out on meaningful relationships and ideas.
  • Delayed decisions – If the last three years have shown us anything, they have revealed that we have worked too slowly towards innovation that benefits community. When we work together, leveraging the ‘controversy,’ we can cut through the bureaucracy, more quickly reach meaningful solutions.

If the answer to these challenges is ‘good controversy,’ then we also need to acknowledge that these hard conversations can’t happen without the hard work of community and trust-building. There is no shortage right now of spaces that encourage ‘unproductive controversy,’ especially on social media. There is a need for safe, engaging spaces for these conversations to take place – spaces that are built on respect and mutual understanding. At Next Stage, we believe that communities of practice can be an effective venue for this work to happen.

Bringing Vulnerability to Communities of Practice

This fall, our team is piloting a community of practice for community health leaders across North Carolina. We’ll share more about that soon – but the goal is to create an online community that convenes around the challenges facing every health system, foundation and health-focused nonprofit in the state, prioritizing issues that will make a major impact. Here are three ways we plan to establish a community built on mutuality and respect, that embraces healthy, ‘good controversy:’

  • Recognize a shared sense of purpose – Communities of Practice should orient around a common goal, acknowledging that all members of the community share a purpose. While opinions and perspectives about how to get there may differ, acknowledging a common purpose creates healthy respect among parties and establishes trust.
  • Create trust that inspires vulnerability – Without mutual trust, it is nearly impossible to create a culture of vulnerability – the very thing that inspires honest conversation. Without this vulnerability, it is really difficult to lean into hard conversations and different perspectives. These Communities of Practice will focus on relationships built on trust and ground rules that make it safe to share and be heard.
  • Embrace the tension – Acknowledging upfront that different perspectives will bring different priorities and opinions to the conversation goes a long way in establishing trust. When participants embrace this tension it helps everyone be a better listener and consider viewpoints they may not have considered before. By encouraging one another to lean into the occasional discomfort of controversy, we build stronger communication muscles and are able to more honestly and rapidly work towards solutions.

Here’s to ditching that outdated advice and embracing ‘good controversy.’ Let’s talk about the hard stuff – and let’s use those conversations to guide us towards a better community, together.

Written by: Janet Ervin