Talking about political issues can get heated, and the Republican and Democratic debates are good examples of how differences of opinion can quickly lead to bickering, accusations, and put-downs—exactly the kind of communication you don’t want in your workplace. With primaries and caucuses drawing near, how do you make sure conversations about the candidates don’t turn into office throwdowns?
While politics is one of those topics that’s been declared off-limits when it comes to having polite conversations, there are effective ways to discuss it, says William W. Senft, author of Being Relational: The Seven Ways to Quality Interaction & Lasting Change.
"It’s like exercise; the more you practice, the stronger you get," he told the Chicago Tribune. "Having these kinds of conversations with people who work together will make their ability to deal with issues at work much easier. They'll have practice in how to constructively engage."
To be effective, Senft says a potentially controversial conversation needs three elements:
- It needs to happen when you have time and space to listen to each other, not as you pass in the hallway.
- Both parties need to have humility and a willingness to listen.
- Both parties need to remember that the discussion is a conversation, not a competition.
"That doesn't mean you give up on persuading other people. It means you're being open and generally willing to consider other people's arguments," Senft said.
Having political discussions in the workplace can have some advantages. "[Employees] often represent our clients and consumers in general," says Bill Corbett, Jr., president of Corbett Public Relations, a New York-based firm that offers crisis management. "These discussions let us see what they are interested in, what media messages are getting through, and what people care about."
Political discussions also give leaders a chance to see how employees communicate, defend arguments, and use (or fail to use) logic. "You can tell a lot about how to work with the person, what drives them, and what their vision of the future is," he says.
If your company has a culture that is open and accepting, sharing your opinion should be encouraged, says Katina Sawyer, assistant professor of psychology at Villanova University. "It can be helpful when your coworkers see you being genuine; employees will also feel better psychologically because they’re being true to themselves," she says.
Even when handled well, there are plenty of reasons why companies should try to avoid political discussions, says Eric Abrahamson, professor of business at Columbia Business School. "The political discourse in the U.S. right now is so divisive that I don’t see anything good coming out of these discussions," he says. "It’s a matter of opinions, rather than fact, and the political rhetoric seems to be an outlet for emotions rather than substantive discussion, which is not particularly useful in organizations."
Learning about someone’s opposing political views can also affect how you judge a coworker’s other traits, says Matthew Randall, executive director of the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania. "Negative generalizations typically originating from stereotypes can surface and influence your attitude toward other attributes as well," he says.
And if your company culture is competitive or more narrow-minded, Sawyer says sharing your beliefs might be viewed as being out of line. Unfortunately this can have psychological drawbacks for employees who will feel that they aren't able to be authentic, she adds.
If you do get caught in such a conversation with coworkers, Randall suggests using an exit strategy, such as: "I usually make it a rule not to discuss politics at work. I do need to tackle to some upcoming deadlines, so please excuse me. I'll catch up with everyone later."
CEOs and managers should recognize that political discussions will take place and implement a policy that they be limited and respectful, suggests Corbett, Jr. They should try to keep out of the discussions whenever possible, and simply listen and move on to the next topic.
"Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and other candidates are causing emotional reactions," he says. "Many people who are angry, concerned, and intrigued are paying attention this year. They want to voice their opinions, and they do look to their leaders. The goal of a leader is to empower people to achieve goals. Anything that can hurt this effort should be avoided."