Written by: Emily Young // Sep 1, 2020
Last updated: Sep 1, 2020
Brace yourself: November 2020 is coming. You can only avoid conversations about the election for so long, and you’re bound to have at least one co-worker who’s voting for the opposite candidate. How do you navigate political discussions without jeopardizing workplace relationships? Here’s our guide to talking politics at work and tips for communication.
Understand the Legal Risks
Before launching into a political discussion, proceed with caution:
- You can’t count on the First Amendment to protect you at work, explains this article in The Washington Post: Although your speech is protected if you’re discussing labor issues (such as a candidate’s leave policies), employers can prohibit you from other political discussions.
- In most states, employers can discriminate against you for your political viewpoints.
- You can be fired for your political speech.
Evaluate Your Company’s Climate
Even if you feel safe talking about politics at work, that doesn’t mean you should. In a 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association, employees reported that political conversations caused:
- Reduced productivity
- Poorer work quality
- Difficulty getting work done
- A more negative view of co-workers
- Feeling tense or stressed out
- Increased workplace hostility
Whew! Sounds pretty toxic. That’s not an environment you want to contribute to.
On the other hand, some teams are adept at discussing issues in a respectful, tolerant way. This is usually true at organizations that promote healthy civic engagement. If your co-workers enjoy exchanging views on government policy and elections, you can join in. Just keep the following conversation tips in mind when handling politics at work.
Tips for Healthy Political Conversations at Work
If you’re talking to someone from an opposing party, know how to avoid danger zones.
Keep it workplace appropriate. Just because candidates spew insults and inflammatory remarks doesn’t mean you can repeat them at your job. Steer clear of any statements that would be classified as harassment, including comments on someone’s appearance, religion, gender, race or age. Don’t tell co-workers how they should vote or cover your cubicle with campaign slogans. Do not, for the love of HR, call your co-worker names.
Keep an Open Mind
Most of us spend time with like-minded voters and avoid people from the opposite party. This only increases the political divide. “If we don’t talk to people that disagree with us, we get more assured of our thinking, we see the world in only one way and we become more extreme in the way we think,” explained journalist Bill Bishop in this CNN video about political polarization.
Enter the conversation with the idea that you might actually learn something from your co-worker. Challenging your worldview is a good thing!
Admit Your Biases
You may think that your co-worker is biased. But the reality is, you are too. We all are. This video on partisanship explains how our brains naturally ignore facts that conflict with our political beliefs. We probably don’t even realize we’re doing it. When you’re presented with new information, “make a deliberate effort to push through your initial intuition and evaluate it analytically,” the video suggests. “In your own groups, try to make fact-checking and questioning assumptions a valued part of the culture.”
Fact-checking is a skill that anyone can learn. We recommend this free, 90-minute course from the prestigious Poynter Institute that teaches professional fact-checking tools. You can also watch author John Green’s video series on navigating digital information.
Find Common Ground
Finding common ground might seem impossible. It isn’t. Start by identifying what you and your co-worker both want:
- Rewarding jobs
- Financial security
- Opportunities for your children
- Healthy parks
- Good leaders
Sure, you might disagree on how to get those things. But agreeing that you have the same goals will go a long way. To build common ground, you can tell your colleague, “‘We all want [our country] to be great. We just have different views on how to get there,’” explains a consultant quoted in this Harvard Business Review article.
Finding common ground is easier when you discuss personal experiences rather than political parties. “Talk about your health insurance, not Obamacare,” explains this New York Times article. “Talk about abortion in the context of a friend who chose to have one, or a neighbor who chose not to.”
Be Interested, Not Argumentative
In her TED Talks segment on how to have a better conversation, radio host Celeste Headlee cites a quote by Stephen Covey: “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.”
Your goal should be to listen, not to win an argument. After all, you’re not going to shatter your colleague’s long-held beliefs in five minutes at the water cooler. Don’t view this as a debate, but as an educational opportunity to learn more about someone from across the aisle.
Speak Their Language
When you talk to someone of the opposite party, does it ever feel like you’re speaking a different language? You are!
According to social psychologist Robb Willer’s TED Talks, political parties hold different values: Whereas liberals are big on equality and fairness, conservatives take stands on moral purity and patriotism. Willer found that “if you want to persuade someone on some policy, it’s helpful to connect that policy to their underlying moral values.” For example, conservatives who read an essay that connected pro-environmentalism to the value of purity (i.e., we should keep nature pure) were much more likely to respond favorably to it. This means that when you talk to someone about an issue, you should use the values and terms that resonate with them. It’s all about communicating in a way that someone else will understand.
At some point, your co-worker is going to say something that enrages you. Before you scream a retort, take a moment to deeply inhale and exhale. Borrow calming techniques from meditation: Note five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste. Feel better? Return to the conversation with a gracious statement like, “I hear you and understand where you’re coming from, but we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that particular point.”
Know When to Exit
Is your temper continuing to flare? Is your co-worker looking uneasy? Time to switch topics or leave the conversation. Just remember to do it with grace and good humor.
If you can, follow up with your colleague afterward by sharing a friendly, nonpolitical comment that shows you appreciate their presence in your life. It can be as simple as praising your co-worker’s contribution to a project, sharing a funny cat meme, or wishing them a happy weekend.
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