Political discourse in the United States has grown increasingly contentious over the last few years. In a recent survey from Pew Research Center, 85 percent of respondents said they felt conversations about politics have deteriorated, becoming less respectful, fact-based, and issue-centric than in previous years.
These conversations have caused stress for 40 percent of Americans, according to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln survey. Furthermore, a fifth of respondents said politics had “damaged friendships and created problems with family, friends, and in the home,” while 5 percent said “politics led to financial or legal problems or caused them to miss time at work or school.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that people are finding it harder and harder to leave politics at the door when they enter the office. A 2017 Betterworks survey found that close to three-quarters of employees have talked politics with their colleagues since the 2016 election, and half have witnessed an all-out political argument at work.
Luckily, there are steps we can all take to keep political discussions from ever reaching that level. Consider these tips the next time a work conversation turns political:
1. Understand What’s Appropriate (and What’s Not)
First, get clear on what your company policy is when it comes to political talk. Some private-sector employers discourage it or ban it altogether, which they have the right to do. Even if it is technically okay to talk politics in your office, it’s almost always best to avoid the topic.
“You need to talk about it minimally and respectfully because even if somebody doesn’t say something, they may be feeling uncomfortable,” Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, says.
2. Frame the Conversation Properly
As an election nears, it’s not uncommon for politics to come up around the water cooler, especially when hot-button issues like candidates’ stances on student loans, the economy, or healthcare are in the news. The upside here is that it is possible to have a constructive conversation that doesn’t get heated. According to Gottsman, your body language and tone of voice play a huge role in keeping things calm.
Taking an aggressive or belittling tone, crossing your arms, and shutting the other person down are surefire ways to make people defensive, which doesn’t set the stage for a positive conversation.
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“Ask questions,” says Gottsman. “You can just say, ‘I’m genuinely interested in how you came up with that thought process; what am I missing?’ It really does have a lot to do with your demeanor.”
Perhaps the most important ingredient is active listening, something conflict resolution expert Paula Green underscored to the New York Times earlier this year. Political conversations generally go much more smoothly when each person feels like they’re really being heard, regardless of whether or not others agree with their outlook.
With the right attitude, Gottsman says, political conversations at work can actually be a great opportunity to learn from our differences. You aren’t necessarily going to do a 180 on your political views, but you may become more empathetic as you better understand where other people are coming from.
3. Have an Out
Despite your best efforts, some colleagues may not be respectful, and some may be downright aggressive or relentless with their political views. Gottsman recommends having a script at the ready for removing yourself from a conversation or asking a coworker to tone it down. This can be as simple as affirmatively saying that you’re not up for a political debate at work. End of story.
Gottsman suggests keeping it short and sweet. For example, you could say something like, “You know, Jim, I just don’t like where this conversation is going. It’s turning into a debate and this isn’t the kind of conversation I want to get into.” It’s brief, direct, and unapologetic. From there, you can either steer the discussion into neutral territory or exit the interaction entirely. (Staying on good terms with everyone in the office may help you the next time you’re up for a raise or promotion, so keep that in mind when political conversations arise.)
4. Consider Looping in Management
If you have a colleague who just isn’t getting the message, there’s no shame in bringing the matter to your supervisor’s attention. Working alongside someone who is continually overstepping your personal boundaries makes for a hostile work environment.
Political aggression may even be considered harassment if it includes offensive jokes, insults, or mockery, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Gottsman says you can consider first going directly to the colleague and asking them to knock it off. If that’s not enough, privately share your feelings with your manager or HR contact so they can make a plan for addressing the issue and making a safe space for all.
Marianne Hayes is a longtime freelance writer and content marketing specialist.