Money. Religion. Politics. Three things we are taught not to discuss at the dinner table. Fair enough, but what do you do when you overhear coworkers talking about something like politics around the office? Or when they bring it up on a call? We all know not to be the ones to bring it up, but if someone else does, then what?
Are you sweating just thinking about how to handle it? Feeling like it’s more or less inevitable in this political climate? You’re not alone. So, I went directly to HR for some advice on what to do if you overhear a coworker bringing up politics and they try to engage you directly.
HR Business Partner/Associate Christina Cokeley had four pieces of great advice.
1. Respect Differences
Have you ever seen a movie or read a book with an unreliable narrator? Think Gone Girl or My Brilliant Friend. These stories are told through a narrator who doesn’t quite get the story right, who don’t necessarily see the full picture of what is going on in their world. But because it is the narrator, as a reader it often takes time to realize Oooooooh…What I thought was true was really just one perspective. What compels me most about these stories is that we all go through life as unreliable narrators.
I grew up in rural New Jersey. The first time my cousins who lived on Staten Island came to visit my home, they were amazed at the farms and cows and buffalo right near my house. I was so confused. Why were they acting like buffalo are special? Didn’t they grow up with a buffalo farm nearby? I had no sense that where I grew up shaped what I saw as “normal.” This struck me recently, as someone I know mentioned she had a very average, vanilla childhood. But I knew that she grew up in Brooklyn in an Italian family, and that what she saw as average was actually a childhood that was extremely different from mine, or from someone who grew up in Texas or Iowa. Her normal was my foreign.
Christina emphasized the importance of respecting the differences between us. Usually, a political view someone has comes from the way they see the world.
But that’s really hard to do when you believe in your core that you are RIGHT.
2. You Might Not Agree On What Is Right
“A person shouldn’t be defined by their political opinion,” Christina said, and I definitely agree.
Our experiences in the world mold our values and perceptions, and we all see our own as being the most valid because we have actively formed them. When I was young, I struggled to understand how anyone could disagree with my own political opinions. I really just couldn’t wrap my head around how STUPID the other people must be! …Until I realized that they probably felt the same way about me. I was taking pride in how open minded I was. Yet, I was failing to have compassion for those I had labeled close minded. I myself was acting close minded too, no?
At some point, I accepted that whether we are talking about religion, politics, or buffalo, we all have different, equally valid understandings of normal. Once I did that fully, my life became a lot less confrontational and stressful. Now, when I hear a view that my gut reaction is to dismiss, I find myself actively trying to understand where the other person is coming from and why they might be thinking the way they are. I might still disagree with the bottom-line opinion, but life is a lot less combative when you view disagreeing with compassion. And along with that compassion comes the benefit of the doubt.
3. Don’t Make Inflammatory Assumptions
Not everyone who belongs to a certain party or supports a certain candidate agrees 100% with that candidate or party, so it’s important to avoid making big assumptions based solely on one conversation and your own past experiences.” This might actually be the key to #2.
That makes sense to me. When you realize that we are all coming from different places, you can start to say, “Oh, that person might be for that candidate because XX is very important in their community, , but they don’t necessarily agree or care about YY and ZZ in which that candidate also believes.” After all, the woman who grew up in Brooklyn may have a different set of issues more important to her than the buffalo farm owners, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel the same way about some things.
4. Don’t Engage and Change the Topic
Part of understanding and accepting that you just won’t see eye to eye with everyone is acknowledging that discussing politics often does more bad than good to your personal relationships. And certainly to your professional ones.
Christina said, “Just don’t bring it up. I know this one isn’t easy, but politics don’t belong in the workplace. If asked about it, politely let them know that you’d rather not discuss politics at work. Then, change the topic as soon as possible.”
I know I’m eternally plagued by fear of conflict. So maybe I’d say something like, “Yeah, it’s really been a crazy year. You know what else is crazy? My dog did this crazy thing yesterday…” Not the smoothest transition but I’m workshopping it. I should probably get a dog…
Anyways, we all have different frames of reference, ideas of normal, priorities and values. At the end of the day, someone’s politics (or religion, or whatever) doesn’t affect their job performance. If you overhear something you don’t agree with, make sure to have your thoughts come from a place of kindness and empathy. Of course, if you hear something discriminatory or inciteful and hurtful that shouldn’t be ignored, “doing it right” means reporting the overheard comments or behavior to HR. Most companies, like our own, have a protocol for reporting hostility and discrimination in the workplace. By reporting to HR instead of starting a fight in the heat of the moment, you can address the issue in the most discreet and effective way possible.
In this political climate and upcoming inauguration, I’m signing off hoping that you manage to avoid having to deal with any of this… but if you can’t, I hope that disagreements are met with respect, and I’ll catch you the next time I ask “Am I Doing This Right?”