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3 Tips for Talking Politics in the Workplace

With midterms right around the corner, and an especially divisive presidential election barely in the rearview mirror, understanding the implications of and tactics for discussing politics at work is vital. For some employees, avoiding political discussions is near impossible, and even the mention of a hot-button issue can send others running for the break room — talking politics in the workplace can be a bit of a minefield.

In fact, more than 25% of workers surveyed by the American Psychological Association in 2017 reported that workplace political banter was having some negative impact on them, adding stress to their days and decreasing their productivity.

With the proliferation of social media, a splashy 24-hour news cycle and an increasingly charged political climate, there’s a high likelihood that such conversations will occur within company walls. Putting an end to all political discourse (depending on whether or not a business resides in the public or private sector) treads the line of illegality since it infringes on a person’s right to free speech. The best tact for an employer is preparation and communication.

 Employers should arm employees with tools for civil discussions rather than attempt to squash them altogether. Below are three tips employers can pass along to their workforce to ensure their company remains unified, rather than divided, after the polls close.

Keep it light

Though some current issues can produce heavier conversations and impact real people in serious ways, it’s best to keep the conversation as light as possible in an office environment. Remind employees that it’s extremely difficult to change another person’s mind. A 10-minute gab over the coffee machine attempting to impact a person’s stance on climate change will likely produce fraught relationships rather than enlightenment.

Employees should also know that arming themselves with facts as a way to modify a colleague’s opinion is an exercise in futility. As scientist-turned-lawyer Orzan Varol put it, “As a result of the well-documented confirmation bias, we tend to undervalue evidence that contradicts our beliefs and overvalue evidence that confirms them. We filter out inconvenient truths and arguments on the opposing side. As a result, our opinions solidify, and it becomes increasingly harder to disrupt established patterns of thinking.”

Leaders should remind employees that a change in opinion shouldn’t be the goal of a political discussion, but rather discussions should be way to gain a better understanding of another person’s perspective.

Listen first

Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, said it best: “No man ever listened himself out of a job.” The workforce has expanded since Coolidge’s time to include women as well, but the sentiment withstands the test of time.

Regardless of party affiliation, a listening-first mentality can cover many faults. With nuanced issues such as immigration and health care headlining many discussions, a willingness to listen to another person’s viewpoint allows for a deeper understanding of the issues and more compassion for differing sides.

Don’t force it

Sandra Spataro, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale University‘s School of Management, notes that political conversations should occur at an equal frequency to the amount of current casual conversations. In short, too much of a good thing is never a good thing.

“The amount of casual [political] conversation should be consistent with what that workplace has done traditionally,” she wrote. “What you don’t want to do is introduce 10 minutes for political talk when that has never happened before. It should be something that occurs naturally or doesn’t happen at all.”

Additionally, leaders should encourage employees to frame their political conversations as discussions rather than diatribes. Questions such as “what do you think of candidate XXX?” spur a more open dialogue than questions like “can you believe XX said that?” which can immediately create an “us against them” environment.

Openly discussing beliefs is a right many of us take for granted, and it’s one of the founding principles of America. If done in a civil, gracious manner, and with clear knowledge of industry boundaries, political conversations can provide new ways of thinking and make space for empathy and understanding.