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Political Chatter in the Workplace? It's Possible to Be Civil

It's time to recognize that talking about politics can build workplace relationships, and mutual understanding.

September 27, 2012
Related Topics: Top Stories - Frontpage, Employee Relations, Business Etiquette, Values, Policies and Procedures, HR & Business Administration, Workplace Culture
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The leaves haven't turned and Georgia mornings start warm without a chill. Yet I know it's fall. I'm rechecking blogs and getting a flood of emails and texts. My Facebook pages are jammed with polls and predictions. There are cable shows with highlights, commentators and human interest stories I have to watch.

Yes, it's college football season but the rivalries between Alabama and Auburn, Harvard and Yale, Michigan and Ohio State, pale in comparison to the nationwide battles between Republicans and Democrats. For me and many others, the mania surrounding football season is being replaced by election year obsession.

Conventional workplace wisdom says keep politics out of the workplace—it's too divisive, breeds bad feelings and limits productivity. There are two problems with this counsel.

First, our times are not conventional. Our workplaces are riddled with uncertainty, change, rumors and harsh realities. Who wins and who governs feels more important to most of us than ever.

Second, this has never been advice which has been widely followed. New communication tools and multiple economic and workplace challenges mean it's even less likely to be heeded now.

Let's change conventional wisdom. It's time to recognize that talking about politics can build workplace relationships, and mutual understanding. Surely, we can all agree we need more of both. But there are some rules that help make those conversations productive rather than divisive. I've learned these over the past four decades.

First, some background. In 1972, I started law school at the University of Pittsburgh. Within the first week of classes, I met Warren, who lived a few blocks away and had also grown up in the city. During our freshman year, we took all the same classes, walked or rode to school together and started a weekly study group to talk about torts, contracts, property and agency. We played squash every chance we could.

It took just a conversation or two for us to both know we saw the saw the political world from polar opposite angles and have ever since. Over time, we have developed our own ritual.

Every election season, we debate our different candidates' positions. We challenge each other's views and seek explanations. At times we're curious, at other times, plainly skeptical. Since 1972, neither one of us has changed our core positions.

Here's what has happened, though. Our friendship has grown, in part, because of our ability to listen to each other. So has the breadth of our mutual world views.

I know that Warren has great integrity and cares about the same issues I do. I respect his judgment though I disagree with his prescriptions. I'm pretty certain he sees me that the same way.

By talking to the Loyal Opposition, I have gotten to understand a different point of view, find areas where I agree, challenge my own assumptions and see areas of compromise. I have thought about why this has worked for us.

Apart from our mutual respect, a critical ingredient for these conversations, we've observed some rules of engagement for civil conversations. These rules, tested during the past 40 years may help rather than damage communication and relationships.

  • Don't talk about politics unless your colleague wants to. These discussions need to be mutual, not unilateral barrages.
  • Don't attack the motives of others or insult them. If you don't respect particular coworkers in general, then don't risk talking about politics or issues as it's likely your relationship will suffer, not flourish. If you're a leader, this is especially important.
  • It's more important to listen and learn than to talk and convince. You're not likely to change anyone's view but maybe if you hear and think about what's said you'll learn something that will affect yours.
  • Watch your tone of voice and body language—both often say a lot more than words.
  • Don't circulate demeaning and insulting cartoons, jokes or blurbs which attack the character or legitimacy of those who see the world differently. They demean the sender and the person who forwards them and damage relationships.
  • If you make a mistake and break one of these rules, apologize.

My friendship with Warren has grown richer over the years because we can discuss our points of view, respect one another and learn. It's also a model for dealing with other important topics in our challenging and turbulent times.

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