Global Leadership Blog

Handling Controversy

Getting Comfortable with Being Controversial

“This is the worst advice ever!”

“You could not be more correct.”

“As a woman in a dominantly male environment I very much agree.”

“This article is a joke.”

In case you didn’t catch it, responses to my last post on the qualities of successful female leaders were quite polarized. It was certainly more provocative than what I usually write about. Being an interculturalist, I’ve been trained as a relativist where it’s important to recognize multiple perspectives and understand that they can all be true and right—it depends on the culture, the context, or the country where someone is coming from. It’s true that communication style, attitude, or perception may be normal for one person, may not be for others. How one person views something could be viewed the opposite way by someone else.

For me, being a relativist also means keeping harmony. I often use language that’s sensitive to the fact that there are other perspectives out there. I’ll say “my observation has been that” or “some people look at it this way” or “other perspectives are…”

Therefore, when I wrote last week’s article, I knew it would be a lightning rod. Women in business and the path of female leadership has historical (and current) pain. I picked the scab and it bled a little. But through the rich discussion on LinkedIn, I found it enlightening that there were so many reactions. I also reflected on how the controversy made me feel and how I handled the discomfort that came with it. Not natural for me as an interculturalist and relativist.

I’m not sorry that I shared these observations. I think it’s important to have an open conversation and learn how to handle discomfort, particularly as it relates to hot button topics like diversity.

So, upon reflection over the past week, here’s my advice on handling controversial topics—and getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.

  1. Share your observations more than your opinions. Describe what you see and experience. After all, your truth is as true as anyone else’s. If you talk about what you experienced or witness, rather than what you believe, it will hold more validity because it’s based on something that happened. It is your own experience.
  2. Be aware of your filters. But while it’s your own experience, you also have your own lens in which you experience that experience. We all have our own interpretations or filters. So know what yours are. For example, my last post was through the lens of a long-time successful female executive who has traveled to more than forty countries doing business with both female and male leaders all over the world. Other people may have different viewpoints, a different lens through which they look, and they’re just as valid as mine.
  3. Accept that you’re not going to make everyone comfortable all the time. If you’ve experienced something challenging that someone can learn from, share it widely—and be okay that other people may not be comfortable with it. In fact, embrace it and know that by getting people to think, challenge, and even criticize, you’re helping them form their own perspectives more strongly and thoughtfully. Critical thinking ensures that we’re optimizing solutions and having conversations that are more productive, both professionally and personally.

These three tips are how I approach discussing diversity related to race, culture, personality style, sexual orientation…the list goes on…I find that doing it this way instead of approaching hot button topics in a compliance or a “do’s and don’ts” way fosters more enriching conversations. We’re able to identify what we or our organizations need to do to be more open and tolerant, how a business can appeal to more markets or diverse customers and employees, or what a company needs to shift to be more inclusive. I believe having these open, honest, and compassionate conversations will get us to where we need to be to have further success operating in a global world.

Image Credit: Fotolia Feng Yu

Melissa Lamson

About The Author

Melissa Lamson, Founder and President of Lamson Consulting, is an author, consultant, and speaker who accelerates the business expansion goals of today’s most successful companies by developing global mindset, refining leadership skills, and bridging cross cultural communication.
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