Like it or not, America is perhaps more politically divided today than in any other time in history. That alone sets the stage for extremely uncomfortable workplace discussions.
But when you throw in the fact that recent Supreme Court decisions are the cause for some of the biggest political disagreements of our time, that makes law firms particularly susceptible to heated workplace arguments. There’s nothing lawyers love more than to debate Supreme Court jurisprudence.
That’s not necessarily the case for the rest of the employees of the firm, though.
While paralegals, assistants, and clerks may also love to debate Constitutional law, the power-dynamic that exists in a law firm leaves many people feeling like they can’t voice their opinion…or, they fear that if they do, they’ll put their jobs at risk.
Not only that, but even political discussions between peers can quickly escalate into regrettable discourse.
While the best strategy for staying out of the fray is probably to avoid political discussions altogether, that’s not always realistic.
In fact, one poll found that while 60% of American workers think talking politics at work is a bad idea, 57% do it anyway.
That’s precisely why we’ve compiled these tips for gracefully handling political discussions in the workplace.
Tip #1: Remember that you’re talking to a person
This tip sounds so obvious as to be laughable.
It’s actually sound advice, however.
Think back to the last time you were in a heated political debate with someone you actually admire. Were you angry with the person or with the views the person was espousing in that moment?
The truth is, you probably have a lot more in common (and a lot more important things in common) with the people you work with than you do differences.
So, if you find yourself in a political debate that’s heating up, try to focus on commonalities while remembering everything that you like about the person you’re talking to. That may calm you down enough to excuse yourself from the situation.
Tip #2: Focus on the facts
Sometimes, political discussions are simply unavoidable. If you do get sucked into one, try to focus on facts over emotions.
I know what you’re thinking; everyone seems to have their own “fact sources” these days and they all present completely different “facts” about every issue.
If you sense a political discussion is coming, try to use non-partisan fact checking tools like Google’s Fact Check Explorer. At the very least, those sources will leave you armed with information you can reasonably rely on as you calmly debate the issue.
Tip #3: If you have a story, tell it
While facts are a good tool in any debate, it can sometimes be difficult to convince others that something is a fact, regardless of your sources.
What people do tend to respect, however, is personal stories.
If a particular issue inspires you to share your personal story as to why the issue matters to you, do so, but only do so if you can remain calm and cool as you tell it.
Also, try to remember that you’re in the workplace, and not all stories are appropriate for your co-workers.
Tip #4: Listen to other people’s stories
Just like your life experiences have brought you to your political viewpoints, your coworkers likewise have stories about how they arrived at theirs.
While you don’t have to agree with their view point, you can at least show compassion for how they got there
As your peers speak, practice active listening. Listen to understand what they’re communicating, not just to formulate a response. This is a good habit to cultivate all the time, and during political discussions, it’s an effective way to show that you respect your coworkers and value their points of view.
Tip #5: Be open to learning
The reality of politically-charged discussions is that it’s extremely unlikely anyone will change their mind on an issue just because the discussion took place.
That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from the discussion.
In fact, if you consciously try to learn something new about how other people see the issue at hand, you may become less charged and more empathetic. We all have different experiences in life, and it’s possible to learn and accept that other viewpoints are valid without changing your own.
Tip #6: Prepare to remain calm
There are certain events that happen in life (e.g., recent Supreme Court decisions) that you just know are going to cause endless political debate in the workplace.
If you find yourself dreading these conversations, then do what you can ahead of time to prepare for them.
One of the best things you can do is to read up on how to stay calm during a political debate. Your emotional responses are real and correct, but that doesn’t mean that the expression of those emotions is appropriate during workplace discussions.
Responding with strong emotions is likely to inflame a conversation, while calm responses can help keep everyone civil. Even if others lose their cool, practice keeping your composure.
Tip #7: If you did get heated, deal with it
Every once in a while, you may find yourself getting hotter under the collar than you intended. While we should all strive to avoid that situation (especially in the workplace), it does happen.
So, what do you do if you’ve gone off on one of your coworkers as the result of a political debate?
The most important thing is to deal with the situation in a timely manner.
Cool off, then apologize to the person who received your wrath. Although that will undoubtedly cause you some discomfort, it’s far better than acting like nothing ever happened.
As an added bonus, your willingness to take responsibility for an outburst may help draw attention to the drawbacks of having political discussions at work. You’ll set the example for better behavior and perhaps encourage your peers to mind the subject matter of their conversations.
The bottom line
In a time and a nation as divided as ours, political discourse in the workplace is nearly impossible to avoid.
Regardless of how strongly you feel about an issue, your job is not the place to communicate that passion. Try to stay calm and be respectful of your colleagues.
If you can do that, you just might survive all the things that are coming down the political pipeline.