Three Tips for Having Respectful Political Discussion in the Workplace
She stood up, tension riddling her shoulders, and began voicing perspectives all but identical to my own. It was clear from the first few sentences that she and I had near-identical political beliefs and values, and yet the more she spoke, the more I found myself feeling uncomfortable and pulling away from her words.
This particular moment occurred in a workshop I facilitated. As in all my workshops, I encouraged the attendees to speak up and share their own thoughts on the subject at hand, which is precisely what this attendee did. And yet despite our shared values, I grew detached from her perspective. What could have caused this unexpected disconnect?
The answer is simple: she spoke with disregard, or more accurately, she spoke as if everyone in the room already agreed with her, and if anyone disagreed, her body language and tone suggested they were wrong. She repeatedly used negative terms to make her point, and as time passed, I found myself distancing further and further from her.
I believe this experience speaks to the reality of today’s political climate. I hear over and over how people feel frustrated with these disconnects, sharing messages such as “We have never been more divided!” Too often does politics equate to pushing people away, when a healthier environment to cultivate would mean bringing people in.
Discussing politics in the workplace is especially tricky, as companies often discourage their teams from having these conversations, if not outright forbid them. However, nearly 60% of American employees have discussed politics at work. (And perhaps this percentage may seem low to some of us because of personal experience — I thought it would be higher!) Political conversations at work are happening, so how can we manage them and continue to emphasize respect for others’ views even with the social divisions we are experiencing? While it is perhaps still wisest not to discuss politics at work, it may happen regardless, so let’s walk through some strategies to ensure these conversations occur with respect.
1. Set Conversational Terms
If we cannot outright forbid political conversation, the next best thing is to create positive terms on which these conversations can be engaged. Perhaps what should be prioritized above all else is to ensure that people who are discussing politics want to have such a conversation. When laying down expectations for political discussion, we might consider the following:
- To maintain a healthy work environment, conversations regarding politics are best occurring only between employees who actively want to participate. As such, those of us who are eager to hold conversations about politics should first ask if someone wants to participate in the discussion before we dive in. In doing so, we not only decrease our chances of potential conflict but also demonstrate how we seek to create an environment of respect by acknowledging that not everyone may wish to have political conversations in the first place.
- Similarly, if there is a specific topic some of us don’t feel open to discussing, we might consider saying so explicitly. Outright stating what we are not willing to discuss ensures that anyone potentially making us uncomfortable cannot pretend they were unaware if we find ourselves needing to go to our manager or HR. In the broader sense, laying down the line allows us to better cultivate our own workplace experiences, whether we do or don’t seek to engage in political discussion.
2. Openness & Good Faith
Let’s say we do decide to participate in a discussion regarding politics. All of us are going in with a clear head, and we want to make sure we come out with such temperedness, too! So how can we maintain an atmosphere of respect?
First and foremost, the classic advice is for us to encourage ourselves and our employees to make an effort to understand others’ experiences and how those experiences may have inclined them toward certain political beliefs. But how can we put these words into action? How can we actively try to understand the way a person’s individual experiences shaped their politics? I offer one question — why don’t we ask people, How can I make you feel heard? Perhaps it is a simple question, but it is a powerful one, and someone’s response can go a long way in ensuring we engage in political conversations with empathy and respect.
Additionally, I want to stress the importance of having these conversations in good faith. Instead of pursuing a political discussion as a competition where someone is going to “win” and that arguing is thus inevitable, we might consider approaching with the mentality that everyone here wants to engage in productive, respectful discussion. If we have this mentality, we are more likely to make efforts during conversation to maintain peace, should things begin to go awry.
Before we move on, I also want to note that it is important we don’t assume we’re going to change anyone’s mind. If we push back against the implicit notion that all political discussions are opportunities for conversion and instead embrace them as opportunities for learning, I suspect we’ll find ourselves much more willing to disagree without leading to conflict. In short: bring people in, don’t push them away!
3. Embrace the Unknowing
A key piece of having peaceful political conversations is to get comfortable saying “I don’t know.” After all, it’s okay to not be an expert on something! Speaking personally, I know that I will hold a lot more respect for someone who has the confidence to say, “I don’t know, this is an area I need to research before I can comment” than I would for someone who stubbornly sticks to an incorrect point or repeats a line of reasoning that doesn’t make sense just because it was covered by the media.
Before I conclude, have a piece of bonus advice: in order to facilitate respectful political conversations in the workplace, consider distributing a handbook that includes the above strategies and in general delineates what is and what isn’t appropriate political discussion. For example, the handbook might additionally mention how employees can report an incident on the off chance a conversation gets out of hand. The handbook might also differentiate opinion and hate speech to help protect both their employees’ right to speak their mind and their employees’ right to basic respect and autonomy.
With the strategies outlined above, this type of respect is possible for any and every workplace that seeks to manage political discussions. I would even offer that these tips can apply to all aspects of our lives, from personal to business. For example, whether we are speaking of politics or not, it’s crucial to ensure everyone feels heard and welcome to participate in a conversation. In the story that began this blog, the woman who was so adamantly voicing her opinion in my workshop did not take into consideration how she might make others feel heard even as she stood her ground with her own beliefs. I encourage all of us to go the extra mile: stay true to our values, but using the above strategies, remember to hear and respect the values of others, too.
Dima Ghawi is the founder of a global talent development company with a primary mission for advancing individuals in leadership. Through keynote speeches, training programs and executive coaching, Dima has empowered thousands of professionals across the globe to expand their leadership potential. In addition, she provides guidance to business executives to develop diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and to implement a multi-year plan for advancing quality leaders from within the organization.