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Courageous Dialogue: Transforming Moral Convictions through Conversation

We can all hit walls where the idea of talking to someone, of changing their mind, or just getting them to just see reason feels impossible. Even when we try to have a rational, calm conversation to explain our viewpoints, we can walk away frustrated, exhausted, angry, and convinced there is no point in trying; it’s obviously the other person that is being unreasonable.If this sounds familiar, odds are you’ve experienced a clash of moral convictions.

Unlike other ways we handle differences of opinions or perspective, moral convictions have a powerful hold on how we view not just the issue, but how we perceive the very people we argue against. Such intense judgments about what is “right” and “wrong” can overwhelm people’s ability to compromise, collaborate, or listen to one another. These types of conflicts can have a disastrous impact in our workplaces and communities.

Courageous dialogue is a process to increase psychological safety and trust among participants in order to raise powerful questions and engage in difficult conversations within organizations and across teams and begin the work of value alignment. When working to change organizational culture, shift leadership styles, or introduce new diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, it is imperative that you have skilled facilitators able to navigate these sorts of conflicts as they arise.

graphic of two people having a conversation and opening up their minds.

What makes a moral conviction?

Linda Skitka has done impressive work on defining moral convictions, and how they compare to other ways we handle our differences. She names three qualities that make opinions into moral convictions:

  1. Universality. People tend to believe moral convictions are not just right for themselves, but are right for everyone, everywhere, in all countries and times.

  2. Objectivity. People also tend to think their moral convictions are “self-evident.” These judgments become intertwined with facts, and therefore don’t need justification. It’s just obviously right or wrong.

  3. Autonomous Function. Moral convictions are so powerful they exist independent from our social need to belong and be accepted, or the need to comply with authority. That means even if everyone else believed something different, we would still hold on to our conviction that we are right.

As a result of these qualities, moral convictions stir up deep emotions and move us from rational to more reactive mindsets. They become tied to our sense of identity, and can be a primary source of motivation and justification for our behaviors.

Are moral convictions bad? 

Not exactly. Or rather, moral convictions are complicated. We need moral conviction in the world. It is how we stand up to authoritarian rule and overturn social norms. It is what gives us causes to fight for and helps change happen in the world.

Yet moral convictions also stand in the way of our ability to collaborate, compromise, and build new paths together. At their worst, moral convictions make it easier to view someone who disagrees with us as an archetype of a villain, too stupid or arrogant to ever be reasoned with. This is the foundation of dehumanization. When we see someone as a faceless enemy without nuance, it’s easier to dismiss them, isolate them, and punish them for disagreeing.

“Protracted conflict strains relationships and makes it difficult for parties to recognize that they are part of a shared human community. Such conditions often lead to feelings of intense hatred and alienation among conflicting parties. The more severe the conflict, the more the psychological distance between groups will widen. Eventually, this can result in moral exclusion. Those excluded are typically viewed as inferior, evil, or criminal.” — Michelle Maiese


Closer Than You Might Think

In every community, district, and even workplace, we have more diversity across our viewpoints than we might suspect. When organizations look to create productive, healthy workplaces where employees feel engaged, supported, and have space to raise issues and provide feedback, they need to be aware of what can arise. One-sided rhetoric from management sends a clear message to those not with the program. Stay silent or risk losing your job.

I want to be clear that I’m not arguing for moral relativism. I don’t believe that all moral convictions are equal or that everyone should be given equal platforms regardless of whether or not they support hatred, violence, and prejudice. But if we don’t raise these differences of convictions and talk through them or their related behaviors and instead just suppress voices that disagree with us, then true diversity, equity, and inclusion can never be imbedded into the culture. It will sit on the surface, a forced policy or norm that is required of everyone, but not ever fully accepted. We need both structural changes and interpersonal and internal changes.

So rather the question I pose is this: how do we change moral convictions, or build shared convictions in solidarity rather than force?

A Sisyphean Endeavor

I would not dream to suggest this is an easy or straightforward task. Nor would I say that this task is for every individual in every situation. People should not have to engage others in courageous dialogue when that person’s moral conviction directly dehumanizes your own identity. Having to engage in compassionate communication with someone who genuinely believes that because of who you are you deserve to be met with violence and hatred is an unreasonable ask. For myself, having personally experienced direct forms of sexual harassment and gender-based violence it is incredibly hard for me to maintain compassion and open communication with those who deny that sexism and violence against women is real. There are times when we do need to draw lines in the sand, and practice self-care by disengaging. But I would argue that we are too quick to draw lines because actually engaging others in this process is incredibly hard. It can feel much easier to unfriend them on social media with an artfully scathing post.

Unfortunately, many of us stand on the sideline of conversations that don’t directly relate to our own experience, forcing those from the identities that experience oppression to fight the battle alone. This is why we must all consider how we engage in this work, and where we can each leverage our own power to hold space for dialogue.

This is essential, because dialogue is what changes hearts and minds, more than data, or statistics, or laws and policies. Though it may not be in one conversation, and it may not work for every individual, being able to authentically connect and communicate is powerful. Being able to foster these types of conversations within your workplace can illuminate the areas most in need of change and support and can transform employee engagement, connection, and innovation.


Changing Minds: Changing Hearts

Courageous Dialogues are essentially a series of steps to generate and maintain a space safe for interpersonal risk-taking, meaning that participants can do the following without fear of social or professional consequences:

  • Listen and ask questions to learn and grow

  • Name and acknowledge our own mistakes

  • Call one another “in,” by identifying other’s mistakes and areas of opportunity and explaining the impact

  • Address systemic and institutional challenges within the organization

This doesn’t happen overnight, and in organizations where there are high levels of hierarchy, power dynamics, and punitive repercussions this can take a long time to develop.It requires buy-in and understanding about the purpose from decision-makers, and the more conversations you have with the same group, the better these discussions will run. Leaders need to be aware of their own biases and how they react to feedback so that they can authentically encourage transparent communication.

Having a trained team internally who can help guide these conversations is key. Getting to underlying needs, values, and finding common understanding is a slow process, that may need to be broken into employee resource groups and brought back together in a series of smaller conversations. This is not a one-and-done action, but a new process that requires implementation across the organization. However, when truly integrated into how the organization approaches change, it can have a lasting impact on the culture of the organization and its employees.


Integrative Inquiry is a remote-based consulting firm that partners with organizations to help you to deal with this and other kinds of work culture obstacles and disparities. Learn about what we can offer and why we do the work we do or reach out today.

As always, at Int Inq we strive to co-construct ideas and solutions together. While dialogue, alternative perspectives, and questions are encouraged, please note that extreme comments will be deleted as they do not foster collaborative communication. Instead, we encourage you to message directly through our website --we are always open to engaging. 


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