Of course, you know the old adage: Don’t talk about religion and politics. But that’s difficult to avoid as we move into the final weeks of this turbulent election season. It’s natural to discuss the most recent presidential debate with co-workers with the opening line: “Can you believe what just happened?”
With partisan sentiments running high, however, such conversations can lead into stormy waters – if not outright hostility – and that can be counterproductive in the workplace. Modeling the third and final debate, for example, would itself be disrupting; you don’t want to talk over others, shout or slip in insults (“Such a nasty woman” and “You’re the puppet” comes to mind.) There are ways, however, to have political conversations without devolving into a shouting match.
We need to be careful that we – unlike perhaps Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – don’t let emotions get in the way of considered conversation, even if there is a lot of emotion going into the presidential race. For starters, focus on the issues. Instead of immediately jumping in and saying, “How could anyone vote for him/her?” try asking why the candidate deserves support. What do you think of so-and-so’s policy on X? How could that candidate be helpful for our business or our daily lives? Ask, “What do you think of Trump’s or Clinton’s economic plans, their positions on small business taxes or making college affordable.” The last debate actually created some useful fodder for this kind of give-and-take.
A civil exchange can be even more important for the group of people that are now the main focus of the election: The undecided. Imagine how much insight you might gain if, instead of telling them who to vote for, you ask them about the issue that most affects their lives. What will make them pick one candidate or another? What policies do they support?
In your political conversations, be keenly aware of body language. Avoid crossing your arms, which makes you look defensive. Don’t interrupt – let the other person finish their point of view before you make your point. Make sure your posture and facial expression – your eye contact, for example – show you are truly listening and paying attention to what someone else is saying. Always strive to move the conversation to issues, not emotions.
If, however, the conversation moves into highly volatile talking points, such as “Lock her up,” or “The election is rigged,” it might be wise to steer the conversation into calmer waters. It’s great for Boston sports fans to cheer, chant and show support for a team. But yelling, “Lock her up” is not an appropriate display of political behavior – this raises serious issues in a democracy. An appropriate response might be to say calmly, “That is a comment that bothers me personally and professionally and here’s why.”
I find it interesting that Trump’s behavior reminds me of a spoiled child – everything seems to be rigged. He does not take responsibility for what appears to be a drop in the polls. During Wednesday’s debate, he refused to commit to accepting the election results if he loses. It’s so easy to say, “This is rigged.” We have to balance what the candidates are saying with what is reality.
I’m not saying that you should never disagree with co-workers or supervisors. A good discussion can be healthy – if the conversation can focus on the issues and not emotions and personality traits. Look at the policies, not the politicians. And if that doesn’t work – move on; there are so many other interesting things to talk about.
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Neal Hartman is a Senior Lecturer in Managerial Communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management.