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Workplace Civility: How Can You Discuss Controversial Topics With Your Colleagues?

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There are a number of “controversial” topics that have long been off limits at the dinner table and the workplace — at least, if you’re hoping to keep the peace. We think you know what we mean…

But in an age of 24/7 news cycles and social media sharing, it’s increasingly hard to avoid thinking about (let alone talking about) these taboo subjects while maintaining civility at work.

Most employees are reading or engaging in social media posts at work, according to one survey. And a recent study by the American Psychological Association found that most Americans have discussed politics at work since the 2016 presidential election, with 40 percent of them saying these discussions have led to reduced productivity, poorer work quality, a more negative view of coworkers, feelings of being more tense or stressed out, or feelings of increased hostility. What’s more, 31 percent say they’ve witnessed a workplace argument stemming from a political discussion.

How to have a civil discussion

What are some best practices for engaging with colleagues about often-divisive issues without having your conversation turn into a full-on argument?

Human resources experts advise that employers should acknowledge current events but set a tone of inclusivity and tolerance through communications and management training. But sometimes the people in charge ignore that advice, opening the door to political dialogue by sharing their own beliefs. As an employee, what should you do in a situation like this?

Experts say it’s best to:

  • Know the rules, culture and expectations of your workplace. Is political discourse allowed, encouraged or discouraged?
  • Listen more than you talk and treat others with the same respect that you expect.
  • Understand your own hot topics. What issues are you unable to discuss without getting emotional?
  • Go into any workplace political discussions knowing they should be kept friendly and lighthearted.
  • Remember the goal of the workplace is to work with others to accomplish a shared goal. Trying to mix political advocacy at work can run counter to the cohesiveness your team needs to collaborate effectively.
  • Know when to walk away, but do it with kindness and civility. Take the high road.

One workplace expert, Lynn Taylor, wrote in Psychology Today that workers should keep a few polite, neutral phrases in their conversational arsenal to help diffuse tensions when conversation heads toward the political:

“I hear you.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Oh… that’s interesting.”
“I understand.”
“That’s definitely worth thinking about.”
“I’m sure we could talk for hours about that. Well, I need to get back to work.”

Keeping real conversations from getting out of hand

While it’s important to keep things friendly so all employees feel safe, anthropologist Krystal D’Costa warns that dismissing these conversations as inappropriate for the workplace largely ignores the reality of modern-day life.

“If the lines between work and life continue to blur, as they likely will, it's unrealistic to expect that people will not react, respond, or track these conversations,” D’Costa wrote. “They do, after all, have real implications for lives of many of these people.”

If you have a co-worker who seems to be persistent about engaging in a conversation you don’t want to have, you may need to be more direct, writes Lynze Wardle Lenio, who covers workplace relationships for The Muse: “Sometimes, it’s best to say, ‘I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree’ or even, ‘This conversation is getting a little too heated for the office — can we change the subject?’ to put a stop to the talk once and for all.”