Talking Politics at Work

December 13th, 2016

politicsI cannot recall a time when political opinion has divided people as much as it seems to be doing at the moment. Both Brexit and Trump’s election victory brought shock results and the campaigns polarised opinions dramatically. There have been reports of family relationships being impacted as a result with divisions and differences of opinion becoming difficult to reconcile. So how does this impact on the workplace; is there evidence of problems transferring to relationships between employees and how should employers respond?

A recent survey suggested that one in five employees were negatively affected by political talk, 65% avoided such discussions and 32% felt that they had increased hostility as a result. As a consequence some commentators have indicated that political discussions should be avoided at work. I am not convinced that this is the right approach. Whilst avoidance can be the appropriate response in some situations; particularly where the relationship is more important than the issue concerned, it is not a good general strategy. We all know from experience that avoidance does not mean that the problem goes away. In my view, it is far better to enable employees to manage such differences of opinion in a positive and constructive way. Regardless of the topic of discussion, the ideal is to create a working environment where people can openly discuss differences of opinion in a constructive way. Conflicts and differences of opinion and viewpoints are not in themselves negative, it is the way that individuals respond that influence whether it becomes destructive or constructive; if constructive it becomes positive and an opportunity for learning and improved understanding.

If individuals have the skills or learn how to manage difficult conversations and their responses appropriately there should be no reason why political discussions should in themselves create difficulties or be seen treated as taboo.

The skills needed are:-

  • To listen, really listen to the other point of view. Listen with curiosity, with a view to understanding the others position. As Stephen Covey puts it, “seek first to understand before being understood”.
  • Manage and choose responses rather than react in an emotional manner.
  • Avoid immediately responding by seeking to justify or defend your own position. This will simply invite further justification and defence, the gap widens and the conversation becomes more difficult.
  • Breathe; this helps to maintain calmness allowing individuals to respond rationally rather than emotionally.
  • Watch your language, the words we choose do make a difference, using neutral and non-inflammatory language helps significantly.
  • Watch your body language. If the words you speak are at odds with your body language then your communication will not be so effective.
  • Build rapport, identifying some common ground and a personal connection will help.

The way that politicians communicate does nothing to help and they certainly do not demonstrate this skill set. It never ceases to amaze me how politicians appear to have an absolute conviction that their way is the right way. There is no attempt to really understand the others position, defence and justification abound and they stick doggedly to their point of view whether or not they truly believe it. The trading of insults in the recent US elections was clearly not an example of constructive dialogue and neutral language.

If employees can ignore the incredibly bad example set by politicians and learn to engage in constructive discussions on politics and other potentially difficult topics it can only improve our tolerance and understanding of different points of view. The differences are likely to be apparent whether to not they have been discussed. It is far better to be able to openly discuss issues rather than allow them to fester with things remaining unsaid, misunderstandings perpetuated and assumptions being made to fill in the gaps (real or imagined).


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