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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.

Art by Cristóbal Schmal


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 mora