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How to Have Respectful Political Conversations at Work

With politics front and center in current events, the ability to engage in respectful political discussion at work is crucial. Read on for some actionable tactics.

The letter "J" for Justworks.
Oct 21, 20209 minutes

Being able to communicate respectfully is a critical workplace skill. During a presidential election, politics will inevitably come up in workplace conversations. Every team member needs to know how to communicate respectfully with their coworkers - even if they have opposing views.

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Perspective on Politics and Identity

It’s important to start with an understanding that, to many people, their very identity is political. In today’s often polarizing 24-hour news cycle world, this has become more of a rule than an exception. Politics isn’t just about paying taxes or the size of government in today’s political environment.

Subjects that often fall under the umbrella of politics today include those around race, gender, religion, perceptions of right and wrong, morality, ethics, human rights, and social justice. To many people, their beliefs about these topics are closely associated with their sense of self and identity. People can’t leave who they are at home, and an organization focused on inclusion wouldn’t ask them to. However, every team member does have an obligation to contribute to a positive work environment through respectful communication and behavior.

Clarify Your Goal

Before initiating a political conversation at work, stop and ask yourself what your objective is. If you’re seeking dialogue — a true exchange of information and ideas from multiple perspectives — then make sure you broach the subject in that way. If dialogue isn’t what you’re seeking, stop and ask yourself what your goal is. If your goal is more about reinforcing your own beliefs, trying to persuade others to your “side,” or getting things stirred up, the workplace isn’t really the best place for you to do that.

  • Don’t: Approach the conversation with certainty that everyone would see things your way if only they would hear you out.

  • Do: Approach the conversation with a genuine interest in and openness to others’ perspectives on the topic. Look forward to learning from your peers’ perspectives.

Tip: You don’t have to see eye-to-eye with your coworkers on every issue. If people perceive that you are always trying to persuade them to your worldview, chances are pretty good that you’ll lose any ability to connect with them.

The first step to maintaining respect with regards to political conversations at work or with coworkers is to recognize that your perspectives aren’t universal.

Avoid Making Assumptions

Because politics is so woven into the core of who a person is, it’s very easy for people to lose sight of the fact that not everyone sees the world or interprets events the same way they do. The first step to maintaining respect with regards to political conversations at work or with coworkers is to recognize that your perspectives aren’t universal. Rather than assuming that others agree with you, broach questions by asking for their point of view.

  • Don’t: “Isn’t it terrible the way that people treat …”

  • Do: “I’m wondering what your thoughts are on…”

  • Don’t: “If that candidate wins the election, then democracy is over.”

  • Do: “What do you think is likely to happen to our political system after this election?”

Remember: If you assume that other people necessarily share your political views, that represents bias on your part.

Exhibit Empathy

Empathy is an important key to respectful communication in all conversations, not just political ones. It’s important to realize, though, what empathy really is. Having empathy with another person isn’t just considering how you would feel if you were facing the same situation they are facing — it goes much deeper than that. It’s about actually looking at a situation through another person’s eyes, in light of every experience they’ve ever had.

  • Don’t: “I just don’t understand why people have to talk about their gender identity. I get that some people might want to dress like the other sex, but why can’t they keep quiet?”

  • Do: “How would I feel if there was a stigma attached to a part of my identity that defines who I am. Wouldn’t I want to speak my truth? Maybe gender identity is the same.”

  • Don’t: How can she sit and listen to that biased news channel that spews out lies all day long. What is wrong with her? How can she believe what they say is true?

  • Do: How would I perceive current events if the messages she pays attention to were my only source of news? What can I do to expand her exposure to less biased information?

Tip: To get into an empathetic mindset, stop and think, “How has my life experience been fundamentally different from theirs? How would I see this if my circumstances were more like theirs?”

Avoid Emotional Reactions to Words

People tend to react very emotionally to certain words. For example, the word privilege doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Rather than reacting emotionally and shutting down, verify what the person means. Because shared meaning is necessary for effective communication, this can be a powerful way to keep dialogue going even after an emotional reaction.

  • Don’t: “I’m not privileged just because I’m white. My family didn’t have a lot of money. I’ve always worked. I don’t have a trust fund. How dare you say that I have privilege?”

  • Do: “Will you help me understand what you mean by privilege? I don’t see myself as privileged. To me, privilege applies to extremely wealthy people that never have to work.”

Tip: People don’t always assign the same meaning to specific words. What really matters is the content of the discussion, so don’t allow semantics to cause a breakdown in communication.

Define Terminology at the Beginning

For political discussions that you know may include some emotionally charged terms or concepts that could be defined multiple ways, it’s best to clearly define those terms at the outset. This can help ensure everyone shares the same meaning, at least in the context of the current conversation. It can also help keep the discussion respectful and productive.

  • “What does the word privilege mean to you?”

  • “When you say women’s rights, what do you mean by that?”

  • “When I use the word immigrant, what I mean is …”

Tip: If people can’t agree on what a term means, then use other terms to express the meaning you are trying to convey. Don’t let the discussion become an argument about semantics.

If people can’t agree on what a term means, then use other terms to express the meaning you are trying to convey.

Engage in Active Listening

Active listening is critical to effective communication. Engage in active listening by paying close enough attention to what the other person is saying so that you can put it in your own words to verify their meaning. This can help make sure you aren’t reacting emotionally to a word or phrase or using a different definition for a word than the speaker intended.

  • Don’t: You don’t even know what socialist means. How could you think that?

  • Do: I hear you saying that you don’t like X candidate because you don’t like socialism? Exactly what part of that candidate’s platform do you view as socialist?

  • Follow-up: Let’s talk about that policy proposal from your perspective. If that happened, what would the outcome likely be?

Remember: You’re not the other person’s vocabulary teacher. Don’t get in an argument over semantics that you’re not likely going to agree on. Instead, follow up with questions focused on clarifying meaning when it’s clear that the term or concept is being used in an incorrect way based on bias or emotion.

Take a Cue from Coaches

Learning how to communicate from a coaching perspective is a powerful strategy for remaining respectful when participating in political conversations. Effective coaches are all about motivation. They don’t tear people down or directly tell them what to do. Coaches use questions to help people find their own way to realizing their potential.

  • Don’t: “How can you be so stupid as to think that candiate cares about you?”

  • Do: “Will you share an example of something that candidate has proposed that will benefit you?”

  • Follow-up: “How likely is it that you think that will happen?”

  • Follow-up: “If it does happen, how do you think it will impact you and others?”

Remember: Telling someone that they’re stupid or wrong is not going to motivate them to listen to your perspective. Asking thoughtful questions, though, and really listening to the answers — now, that can be powerful. It can help you understand their point of view and find out what motivates them.

Broaching the Subject

Before starting a political conversation with another person, ask if they’re interested in having a conversation with you about the topic. Be open and honest about what you want to discuss and why you’d like to have the conversation with them. If they say no, honor their wish not to engage.

  • Don’t: “I just can’t understand why people keep pushing for women’s rights. Sex is already a protected characteristic. You have rights. What else do women want?”

  • Do: “I am interested in learning more about your concerns in regards to women’s rights. I thought there were already equal rights laws in place, so I don’t understand why there are still concerns. Would you be willing to share your thoughts on this topic with me?”

Tip: If the person doesn’t want to have a conversation, don’t hold it against them. Remember that your coworkers are under no obligation to share personal perspectives with you, or anyone, in the workplace.

Remember that your coworkers are under no obligation to share personal perspectives with you, or anyone, in the workplace.

Disengaging Politely

If coworkers seek to start political conversations with you and you’d prefer not to engage, it is — of course — totally fine to choose not to participate. In saying no, though, it’s still important to be respectful.

  • Don’t: “What is wrong with you? Why would you ask me about something so personal?”

  • Do: “I’m glad you’re interested in X, but that’s not a conversation I wish to have.”

  • Don’t: “I don’t have time to talk about that.” This implies you will discuss when you’re less busy, so don’t give them a reason to ask again if you really don’t want to engage.

  • Do: “Sorry, but that’s not a discussion I am comfortable participating in.”

Tip: If someone keeps bringing up the topic with you, be firm, yet polite. Expand your response to include something like, “Please respect my wish to not discuss this topic by not bringing it up again.”

Respect Always Matters

People who work together don’t always agree, even with regards to the work itself. It’s not realistic to expect that all of your coworkers share your same political perspectives, or that everyone wants to talk politics at work. It’s also not realistic to expect that political conversations won’t occur in the workplace. Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to decide whether or not they choose to engage in these types of conversations. Whatever your perspective, what always matters is that you remain respectful in your interactions with others and that you contribute positively to a climate of diversity, equity and inclusion.

This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal or tax advice. If you have any legal or tax questions regarding this content or related issues, then you should consult with your professional legal or tax advisor.