Career Advice

How to Handle Political Conversations in the Workplace

Female Business Executives

If you work in an office with co-workers and you’re trying to avoid talking about the upcoming presidential election, we’d like to wish you good luck. Politics (along with sex and religion) have long been taboo workplace and dinner table topics, but there’s no denying that it comes up.

So, what’s an employee to do? Can you pin your “I’m With Her Button?” to your cubicle entryway? Can you wear your “Make America Great Again” hat during an outdoor professional development event? Whether you work in a politicized industry like healthcare or you simply have strong opinions, it’s hard to know where to draw the line between casual conversation and inappropriate confrontation.

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In some cases, what you should do is clearly outlined by your employer. According to SHRM, 24 percent of organizations have a formal, written policy about political activities (including conversation) in the workplace and 8 percent have an informal, unwritten policy. But the rest of the organizations surveyed—about 67 percent—don’t have official guidance about this topic, leaving employees to use their discretion.

As we push through these last few weeks before the election, it’s time for a reminder that hats, buttons, sneers, and snappy comebacks won’t change anyone’s mind—and definitely won’t make for a friendly or productive workplace. With that in mind, here are five communication tips that will help you talk about politics (or not) in a productive way:

1. Find common ground first

Dale Carnegie, expert sales and interpersonal communicator, probably wasn’t talking about politics when he told his students to get the other person to say, “Yes! Yes!,” but the lesson applies here. In his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie explains that you should start every conversation with some kind of agreement, or by getting the other person to say yes to something, no matter how small. When you build a momentum of agreement before you address a contentious topic, others will be more open to considering your opinion and feel more inclined to accept your alternative suggestion.

When discussing politics, saying “Yes! Yes!” doesn’t mean you have to completely agree with someone else’s stance. You just need to find a neutral common ground or belief that you both agree with. For example, when discussing policies surrounding feeding the hungry, both sides can agree with a statement like, “It’s important for everyone in the United States to have access to free or affordable food.” Once you and your conversation partner are saying “Yes,” the negative charge is eliminated from the conversation. Knowing you both agree with what the end result should be, you can productively (and peacefully) discuss the pros and cons of different alternatives.

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2. Remember that nothing’s more attractive than happiness

We all want to convert members of the other party. So, we post inflammatory messages online or wear buttons or hats with names on them and hope that the sheer volume of repetition will allow us to change someone’s mind. But here’s the thing: have you ever wanted to buy something from an angry salesman? Have you ever asked an unhappy person for career advice? Probably not, because part of what makes us curious about ideas and people is their relative level of happiness.

You really do attract more flies with honey than with vinegar, and the same principle applies to political conversations. Anger, frustration, and sarcasm may make you feel good in the short-term, but it will cause your conversation partner to go on the defensive and fortify the walls that safeguard their opinion. If you hope to talk about politics and change a few hearts, focus first on your achieving a calm and happy demeanor that allows others to relax during your conversation.

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3. If you can’t be happy, at least don’t try to force anyone

If the political season (or one politician in particular) simply makes you too angry to act sweet, at least don’t try to force anyone to defend themselves or their political values on the spot. First, it breaks the golden rule to do as you would be done by. Anyone bombarded by a pre-planned argument might find themselves stuttering for a comeback, including yourself, so it’s simply not fair to do so to someone you disagree with.

Second, any conversation that happens by blunt force won’t do a lick of good in actually changing someone’s mind. Dale Carnegie’s advice on confrontational dialogue is still the best advice available: “A person convinced against their will is of the same opinion still.” When someone agrees with you because they feel pressured to do so, it’s a superficial concession. Far from doing any good, you’ve simply damaged whatever goodwill you had between your coworker and yourself, making it that much harder to see eye to eye in the future.

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4. Take your fight outside the workplace

Many polarized issues workplace issues are already made law, including legislation regarding same-sex marriage, certain kinds of health care coverage, and global warming and economics. If you disagree with these laws, the place to fight for change is your local, state, and federal government—not with coworkers or leaders who are doing their job and complying with these laws.  

While your employer cannot prohibit you from disagreeing with established law, you can get in trouble if the political discussion directly or indirectly addresses protected classes and could be construed as discriminatory or bullying. In each case, the best solution is to exhibit personal restraint and take your fight outside the workplace.

5. When in doubt, be nonpartisan

It can be difficult to withhold your opinion (especially when asked), but sometimes it’s worth taking our advice from the 2012 election: make a nonpartisan comment like, “No matter who wins, I hope we see America thrive,” and refocus on the work task at hand. Don’t dismiss this response as passive or weak; it’s actually the most effective way to reduce tension and increase your ability to converse. After all, the purpose of our political system is to see America and Americans thrive—we’re just divided on how to best achieve that goal.  

Politics is a touchy subject. But if we all decide to put relationships and communication first, we can get through this election without permanent damage—and maybe even change a few minds.

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