Red and Blue Elephants at the Water Cooler: How to Talk Politics in the Workplace

It’s been a fraught year for democracy in the United States, to put it mildly, and the November midterm elections did little to calm partisan temperatures. If you think conversation can get heated at the holiday dinner table with family and friends, you also know it can be equally challenging to navigate political issues at the office.

That said, learning to discuss politics in productive ways can help you manage other difficult conversations, from performance reviews to contentious clients. Here are some tips to avoid colliding with colleagues who may not share your worldview and to help support a workplace culture that brings people together rather than dividing them.

Know the ground rules. Understand local and federal laws that govern political speech where you work. Your office, too, may have guidelines that prohibit wearing political clothing, sharing campaign material, and using your professional email or social media accounts for politicking purposes.

Test the waters. Look for cues before chiming into a political conversation, and weigh the consequences. Timing is key. It’s not a good idea to engage with someone who isn’t interested or is already fired up. One-on-one, face-to-face interactions in calm moments are best for productive dialogue.

Tread carefully. Ask permission to pose questions (“Can I ask you something about politics and your views on something?”), and acknowledge your own political stance (“As you probably know, I’m a liberal Democrat/conservative Republican.”) Consider your work relationship and whether past exchanges have had good outcomes.

Remember not everyone shares your views. Like anything else, unfortunately what you express in terms of political views can affect how co-workers and supervisors perceive (and reward) you and your work. Don’t guess at someone’s politics based on their income, position or appearance. A good rule of thumb is to assume everyone belongs to the opposite party and speak (or not) accordingly.

Go in with an open mind. Accept that you will not persuade the other person to change their core attitudes and beliefs and that even the “facts” of an issue will not be agreed on. Instead, stay curious, and respectful.

Listen. Everyone appreciates being heard. Try paraphrasing what your conversation partner has said to offer them that courtesy and make sure you understand what they have said.

Look for common ground. Most people have some common values and concerns, even in times of conflict. Mention areas of agreement if you see them, and stay away from provocative language and baiting questions. Instead, try offering something critical about your side and positive about the other to help build a bridge.

Agree to disagree. Instead of running circles around one another, sometimes it’s best to acknowledge differences in a friendly manner and move on. You can try shifting the conversation from specific politicians or candidates to broader issues (campaign finance). Or you can politely sign off. A little humor never hurts, like “Well, glad we’ve solved the world’s problems!”

Steer clear of hot button topics. Subjects like abortion that are intimately tied to religious and other deeply personal values can get out of hand quickly. It’s best to leave these on the sidelines at work.

Walk away. Despite your best efforts, a political exchange may go off track or get heated and confrontational. If that happens, it’s time to walk away.

Set the tone. If you’re a manager or a supervisor (or aspire to be one), pay attention to the communications culture in your workplace. Contribute to a civil and respectful atmosphere by modeling that behavior. And go a step further by finding nonpartisan, socially conscious ways for people to harness that energy through volunteer opportunities or partnering with local nonprofits.

For more information and resources, check out Better Angels, a bipartisan citizen’s movement to unify our divided nation by building new ways to talk to one another, participate together in public life, and influence the direction of the nation.

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