Using Effective Communication to Overcome Business Differences

What do an animal rights activist and a chicken factory farmer have in common?

At first glance, the simple answer might be “not much”. After all, the goals of each seem to be diametrically opposed. Before we get into the actual answer, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on how often we come across situations in which our goals or viewpoints seem to be entirely out of alignment with someone else’s.

A cursory glance of the news cycle of the past few months emphasizes the differences of opinion that exist on large-scale issues, including the return to work, vaccine mandates, and the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Within organizations, leaders at all levels must navigate these differences within and among teams in addition to the changing expectations of stakeholders.

Driving progress on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues means engaging and collaborating with individuals whose beliefs, opinions, or goals may differ, both within an organization and with external stakeholders. This makes it imperative for leaders to learn how to overcome business differences as they build sustainable solutions.

Leah Garcés, President of Mercy for Animals, recently led a workshop for Kindred members on brokering peace with colleagues, friends, and family and collaborating to solve problems. An animal rights activist, Garcés has dedicated her career to advocating for the humane treatment of farmed animals, changing the practice of chicken factory farming, and evolving the meat industry as a whole. 

Throughout her career, she’s found unexpected allies in chicken factory farmers and collaborated with food industry executives to advance her mission of reducing animal suffering and building a better food system.

Here are three lessons from Garcés’ workshop that leaders can apply to overcome differences in personal and professional settings.

Lesson 1: Center the Person First

In one of her first visits to the headquarters of a major chicken producer, Garcés met with an executive who initially appeared adversarial. However, over the course of introductions, they were able to connect over similar family experiences. 

The event was a lesson in the importance of seeing the person first when approaching someone with whom you disagree. “Recognize that the human being before you very likely shares the majority of your values and common human experience and start from there,” Garcés said.

Key takeaway: Often, people who disagree tend to have more in common than they realize. Look for the commonalities and build on those areas instead of focusing on differences.

Lesson 2: Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Interacting with people we disagree with may be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary to move a plan forward. In Garcés’ case, she realized that engaging and collaborating with the corporations that controlled the factory farms would enable her to work from the inside to yield greater results. 

Doing this required leaving her comfort zone and getting a better understanding of what would inspire tangible change. “Staying in our comfort zone and only talking to people who agree with us won’t get us to the solution,” she says. “Be prepared to be uncomfortable, to come to a table open-hearted and open-minded, even with the most hostile of stakeholders. Be curious and willing to truly explore the other side.”

Key takeaway: Finding solutions to conflict involves deeply engaging with people who disagree with you. Staying in your comfort zone means you’re not addressing the disagreements in your environment, or you’re not learning. 

Lesson 3: Look for the Win-Win

Once you get out of your comfort zone and find common ground, the next step in overcoming business differences is finding solutions that benefit all stakeholders. For Garcés, part of effecting large-scale change in the meat industry was considering where she could influence business decisions. 

This meant working with executives to incorporate more sustainable alternatives to animal products into their business model, such as plant-based proteins. Plant-based options have grown in popularity among consumers in the past few years, with the market expected to reach $23.4 billion by 2027. “It became clear to me that by thinking in this way, you can really create these long-lasting, sustainable changes that everyone is going to buy into,” Garcés said.

Key takeaway: To connect with others and solve collective problems, try to find solutions that benefit every stakeholder. 

As leaders navigate an evolving business landscape and changing expectations from internal and external stakeholders, learning to engage and collaborate successfully is critical. “Whether it can be a battle with a person…or a battle with a system of oppression and exploitation, factory farming, climate change, racism, misogyny, I think that the world’s largest and smallest problems will not be solved by fighting out enemies and beating them down, but looking for these win-wins and forging a path together,” Garcés said. 

So, back to the question: what do an animal rights activist and chicken factory farmer have in common? As it turns out, enough to affect meaningful change. But figuring out these commonalities and charting a path forward is a lesson in communication, courage, and empathy. By focusing on the individual, embracing discomfort, and developing mutually beneficial solutions, leaders can drive progress both within the organization and the wider society.

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Urey Onuoha

Published on October 13, 2021