Politics is already a sensitive subject at the office. The touchiness has been amplified recently. Yet whether it’s in the office, during happy hour or even on social media, politics will likely come up.
Although it’s easier said than done, plenty of experts maintain you should never discuss politics at work under any circumstances. After all, it can be divisive. You’re talking about people’s world views, how they believe the country should be run and in many cases the best ways for people to live their lives.
Many of my clients have anxiety not only about issues, policies and the future of America itself, but also about whether they should entertain political discussions at work. And if so, how?
Here’s what to do and what not to do when it comes to discussing political issues with colleagues.
1. Ask for permission.
It’s an easy step to forget: always ask for permission before launching into a touchy topic. Everyone has different boundaries around discussing sensitive issues. Don’t make the mistake of getting caught up in rigid thinking and assume your co-workers have the same broaching the topic of politics as you do.
To set the groundwork for a healthy, productive dialogue, you might say: “I’m not trying to change your mind. I see this issue very differently and I’d like to understand. Would it be okay to spend a few minutes talking through our perspectives?”
2. Know your facts (and admit when you don't).
In the heat of the moment, you might feel an urge to spit out some compelling sound bites you saw online while scanning the headlines without relevant information to back it up. But blustering through an ill-informed argument will only do damage to future conversations. It certainly won’t win you points in the current one.
There’s nothing wrong with admitting you aren’t up to speed on a particular issue. Try saying, “Wow, interesting! I’d like to do more research on this today after work. Can we pick this conversation up tomorrow?”
3. Know your triggers — and watch for them.
Politics can be personal for many people, maybe even for you. You might have strong feelings about a woman’s right to choose. Perhaps your family was affected by immigration policies firsthand.
Whether it’s around certain issues or the candidates themselves, be mindful about where your own triggers are. This type of self-awareness can help you regulate your emotions rather than lose control and do something unprofessional that you’ll regret, like yelling or saying something nasty to a colleague.
It’s also easier than you might think to use a discussion of politics to project other problems you have with a colleague. Don’t let a discussion of U.S. political news slip into a discussion of office politics instead.
If you do find yourself feeling frustrated, don’t place ownership of your frustrations onto your co-workers by saying, for instance: “You’re making me frustrated.” If you feel like you need to express that idea, reword it to take more responsibility when you say something like: “I feel frustrated.” This takes away the accusatory tone and opens it up for your colleague to empathize.
4. Frame it as a learning opportunity.
If you decide to enter into a political conversation with a colleague, think of it as a chance to learn from one another, not change each other’s views. Being interested in someone else’s thought process can be a great reason to engage in a political discussion.
Try saying something along the lines of: “I know what I think about healthcare, but I’m curious why you feel so differently. Would you be open to sharing your position with me?” Just make sure that in the back of your mind you’re not secretly hoping you’ll convert your co-worker.
5. Don't stand for disrespect.
It’s completely possible for people to have opposing viewpoints without stooping to derogatory comments. When emotions are running high, a disagreement over political philosophies can deteriorate into personalized attacks. Before that happens, the best option is to agree to disagree—and then get back to work.
If you can sense a discussion going south, try saying: “The tone of this conversation is not appropriate for work. It’s not heading in a good direction, so let’s agree to drop it” After that, either excuse yourself to another conversation or leave the room. You can also redirect the conversation by saying something like: “I’m honestly overwhelmed by all this election coverage. Let’s talk about something else.”
6. Don't assume you're off the clock when you're on social media.
Social media is a powerful tool to keep in touch and maintain connections, and it’s become an important aspect of today’s working relationships.
Though you’re (hopefully) not at work when you’re using social media, make sure you do a quick check-in with yourself before you post or comment on anything political. Picture your coworkers seeing it. Imagine it possibly serving as a catalyst to an in-person office discussion. Are you okay with that? If so, post away.
7. In the end, agree to disagree if need be.
It can be very tricky to navigate this politics at work. But when handled correctly, these discussions with your colleagues can be enlightening—no matter which side of the political aisle you’re on.
Melody Wilding is the Workplace Success Coach for smart, sensitive high-achievers who are tired of getting in their own way. She’s here to help you break free from self-doubt and overwhelm, master your emotions, and use your sensitivity as the superpower that it is. Her clients include leaders at top Fortune 500 companies such as Google, HP, Facebook, Twitter, IBM, and others and work has been featured on The New York Times, The Oprah Magazine, NBC News, more. Melody is a licensed social worker and professor of Human Behavior. Learn more at melodywilding.com