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In Turbulent Times, How To Talk Politics At Work

After all, we have at least three and a half more years of this administration, and that’s a lot of tweets, write Jason Jay and Gabriel Grant. Pictured: Hats displaying support for  presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in August 2016. (Mark Lennihan/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
After all, we have at least three and a half more years of this administration, and that’s a lot of tweets, write Jason Jay and Gabriel Grant. Pictured: Hats displaying support for presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in August 2016. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

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Whatever your political views, it’s likely that a tsunami of tweets, opinion pieces and late night comedy skits have made their way into your news feeds and dinner table conversations. It's seemingly unavoidable with an administration whose leader makes international news with every early morning tweet.

But what happens when that wave of opinions and information makes an unwelcome entrance into your workplace?

In a highly contentious and polarized political time, the 24-hour news cycle and constant social media contact continues to trigger emotional and widely divergent reactions. Add to this mix a new generation of workers who seek to bring their “whole selves" to work, including their political views, and you have a brand new office context in which politics show up alongside quarterly earnings as hot button topics. A whole array of corporate policies take on new meaning and intensity, including foreign worker visas, affirmative action, LGBT partner benefits and climate change strategy.

Given the range of opinions and news sources out there, politicized conversations often get stuck. Or, we carefully avoid them altogether for fear of being zapped — damaging important relationships and disrupting teamwork. At the same time, these conversations can be a chance to learn and hone your competitive edge.

Instead of stewing in mutual self-affirmation, invite your allies to have a different kind of conversation.

But how can we get there? If there is one fundamental insight in our work, it is that there is no script, no set of talking points that will help us move forward. Getting “stuck” conversations unstuck is not simply about finding “the right thing to say,” but about a more fundamental shift in our approach to difficult conversations.

Based on our research at MIT and Yale and our direct experience working with thousands of social and environmental change leaders, we have identified three common pitfalls that workers experience when trying to deal with political or otherwise difficult discussions at work.

Pitfall No. 1: Preaching to the choir

The first pitfall is retreating from political divisions to a group of like-minded people who will affirm your views. We all share this impulse. It keeps us safe, and lets us enjoy the feeling of being certain, right and righteous.

“Preaching to the choir,” however, won’t help you learn from others with diverse perspectives, or craft solutions that may benefit your workplace. Instead of stewing in mutual self-affirmation, invite your allies to have a different kind of conversation. Ask each other how you will make a difference. Ask each other what conversations you are avoiding. And challenge one another to take action, including engaging in difficult conversations outside the choir.

Pitfall No. 2: Going in hot

If we do engage across political lines, we often find ourselves going in too hot. Fired up from the self-righteous stance we inherit from our choir and thinking “they’ll never get it,” we barge into a conversation overheated and convinced of our own positions.

If you go into a conversation like this, no matter what is actually said, your internal thoughts and prejudices will likely come through. So much is conveyed by tone and body language; the outer conversation will ultimately echo the inner one.

To avoid this, stop and take a deep breath. Listen to your internal monologue, all the thoughts and prejudices you have about the other side. This reflection can be hard, so get help — talk with someone you trust who can help you see the limits of your own thoughts and approach. If you can describe and set aside your own internal monologue, you can make space to genuinely listen.

One way to do this is to acknowledge your unhelpful thoughts and prejudices to the other person in the form of a wholehearted apology. Being honest and asking for help can be refreshing and disarming, and creates an opening to work across the lines to find creative solutions.

Getting “stuck” conversations unstuck is not simply about finding “the right thing to say,” but about a more fundamental shift in our approach to difficult conversations.

Pitfall No. 3: Giving up

When conversations fail, we solidify our own prejudices. We move on, thinking, “they’ll never get it.” Then we tell the story of our failure in such a way that these beliefs infect others.

Instead, use failures to learn. Look back on the conversation and ask yourself if you truly abandoned an aggressive posture, if you listened and made space for dialogue. Use your allies to reflect on how you might engage differently to produce more productive results.

Polarization and gridlock persist when people hold on to fixed perspectives. The possibility of restoring relationships and uncovering innovative solutions across political lines exists within these contentious conversations. When conversations go well, share the success with others and describe what it took to get there. We can change the deep political divides between people, one conversation at a time.

After all, we have at least three and a half more years of this administration, and that’s a lot of tweets.

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