By Kathleen Furore

Political conversation is fraught with potential conflict. The fact that people are starting to return to their workplaces as the pandemic seemingly gets better and as protests take place makes the likelihood of tempers flaring even more likely.

In these particularly turbulent times, how can everyone, no matter their political persuasion, handle situations that arise if co-workers and supervisors with very different views start expressing them in inflammatory, non-constructive ways?

Guidelines and “safe words” are two things experts say can tame political discourse.

“Employees need guidelines for handling political conversations, and even more importantly, employers need to be clear on their policies regarding political debate in the workplace,” says Ximena Hartsock, Ph.D., co-founder of Washington, D.C.-based Phone2Action, a platform for digital advocacy and public affairs technology. “If there are no guidelines, employees at least need a reference point to guide their dialogue: the company’s values, the company’s mission, something.”

“There will always be people on opposing sides, and never in equal measure,” Hartsock continues. “Those who hold minority points of view can feel isolated and it is a company’s job to prevent this feeling of isolation.”

That doesn’t mean squelching honest debate.

“We always say, ‘You can be honest and open about your position but think of how you deliver your point of view,’ “ Hartsock says. “One of our five values is, ‘Take care of each other’ – and that means having empathy for others’ feelings. Political debate is healthy, but employees can get carried away. When people are passionate, they can say things that result in hurt feelings or make their colleagues feel disrespected.”

Executive career coach Terry B. McDougall, author of “Winning the Game of Work: Career Happiness and Success on Your Own Terms,” adds that it is important to be as neutral as possible during the course of a political debate.

“When people are emotional it’s hard for emotions not to escalate the situation,” says McDougall, who suggests using something she calls “acknowledgement and validation – an approach that takes each person’s individual experiences into account.”

She stresses, “Recognize that their opinion is perfectly natural for them, just as your perspective is perfectly natural for you,” suggesting having a conversation that goes something like this:

“I respect your right to feel the way that you do given your experience, and I would appreciate you understanding that my experience is different, and that my feelings are natural given what I’ve gone through. It would be more productive if we focused on the work that we need to do together and perhaps leave the politics out of the workplace. Can we agree to that?”

Perhaps the simplest suggestion I’ve heard for tamping things down when tempers flare comes from David Taffet, chief executive officer of Fort Worth-based Petal LLC, a high-tech consumer goods company, whose team members’ beliefs, “span the political spectrum from libertarian to communitarian – and so do our team’s conversations,” Taffet says.

His solution: “To prevent inflammatory, non-constructive discourse, we have all agreed to a simple mechanism for defusing political conversations before they cause harm: a safe word. When the safe word ‘Magna Carta’ is uttered, all conversation immediately ceases, we take a moment to acknowledge our mutual respect for one another, embrace the need to move on, and continue with a productive, joyful day.”

And what did his employees think of the solution? Everyone agreed.

“It has proven effective in calming even the most charged of conversations,” Taffet reports. “I have the distinct privilege of presiding over an early stage-company that is majority-owned by women and deeply committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. From this, one would probably assume that our company’s definition of diversity stems from a conventional liberal paradigm. However, we believe that diversity of thought, including one’s political beliefs, can enrich a company’s culture.”

Kathleen Furore is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has covered personal finance and other business-related topics for a variety of trade and consumer publications. You can email her your career questions at kfurore@yahoo.com.

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