When it comes to politics, there’s not much we all agree on—except that politics is incredibly heated these days.
That tension will certainly creep into the workplace as the 2020 presidential campaign ramps up. (The divisiveness of the 2016 race feels like just yesterday, doesn’t it?) In the past, 28% of people have had heated political discussions in the workplace, according to consultancy VitalSmarts. Meanwhile, Randstad puts that number at 38%. Think about that: at least one in three people have gotten into a passionate political debates at work!
“Whether it’s something you read when your first woke up or listened to while riding the train or driving, there is this tendency to be primed when you arrive at work,” said Justin Hale, crucial conversation master trainer with VitalSmarts. “And rarely does that priming come without some sense of emotion, excitement or energy you want to share.”
Some employees may naturally shy away from talking politics at work, thinking that it’s just too volatile a topic.
“We don’t want to talk about things at work that could potentially create employment risk for ourselves or create a non work-related conflict,” said McClain Watson, professor of business communication at the University of Texas. “But we are human beings and theoretically, living in a system like we do, talking with other people and sharing opinions is really important and essential—so that’s the dilemma.”
Sure political talk at work could get heated, but it might also be thoughtful, intelligent, and respectful. That’s why stamping out all political discussion isn’t a good option either.
“You want your people to talk about tough stuff. You want your people to disagree about emotional topics and sensitive topics—but never at the expense of endless respect,” said Hale.
How can you keep the peace without stamping out healthy discussion altogether? We’ve got you covered. Here are six ways to talk politics at work without it getting ugly.
Find common ground
We all want to stop mass shootings. We’re all rooting for the American economy to thrive. We all want to educate our children. Sure, we’ve got very different thoughts about how to get there, but that shouldn’t stop us from seeing the common ground we’re all working to achieve.
“Let the other person know the goals you share, even if your preferred tactics to go about achieving those are completely different,” said Hale. “You should start any conversation with where you agree. Even if it’s the most sensitive topic around social issues, you should start by discussing the outcome you’re both going after.”
Civil discussion has real benefits. People who took simple measures to disagree agreeably (like showing respect for one another) were 140% more persuasive and 180 times more likely to maintain relationships than those who don’t, according to VitalSmarts.
Avoid personal attacks
Snowflake. Stupid. Jerk. Close-minded. Such trigger words are sure to get people exacerbated and send political discussions into the gutter. Avoid attacking people with generalized labels and you’ll keep the discourse at a much higher level.
“If you want to know the quickest way to separate two people in a conversation, it’s to use labels—and both sides do it all the time,” said Hale.
Hold a town hall about issues (not politics)
Perhaps an election or policy change has implications on how you do business. Perhaps new laws around data privacy affect how you interact with customers. Perhaps trade negotiations affect how you work with multinational partners. Examine those issues by holding a town hall to discuss them in detail—but please stick to the issues.
“We’re not telling you how you should vote. It’s playing the role of a university setting,” said Watson. “The purpose is to inform, educate, stimulate, and maybe entertain people who should have a deeper knowledge about these issues—but it’s not attached to partisan politics.”
Balance confidence and curiosity
Be confident in your beliefs but have the humility to learn about facts you may not have already known. That doesn’t mean you’re open to being wrong, you’re just open to learning more.
“If you can get to that place then you will often learn things you didn’t know and sometimes shift your view or grow empathy toward the other person,” said Hale.
Ask questions (and genuinely care about the answers)
Stop trying to simply convince people of your opinion. If anything, that’ll get them to retrench, not relent. Instead, ask questions about what got them to that opinion in the first place.
“The less focused on convincing you are, the more convincing you become,” said Hale. “When you ask what drove people to the opinions they hold—not argue loudly about your own opinion—that can bring quite a bit of empathy. And then don’t be surprised if that person begins asking questions back to you.”
Bow out when it’s getting too heated
Have a feeling that it’s going from informative to problematic? Have a rehearsed phrase aimed at getting you out of the conversation. Something like this should do the trick: “I’m happy to discuss this issue but it’s clear that it’s becoming too emotional. Let’s talk about this another time.”