Four Steps to Having Political Conversations at Work

Step one: focus on learning, rather than convincing.

By Alexandra HartNovember 15, 2016 11:54 am

After one of the most divisive presidential elections in American history, many are wondering how to bridge the divide when we talk politics at work?

Before the media began talking about so-called hot button topics, or wedge issues, your mom and dad might have warned you about some off-limit subjects. Many of them would advise that polite people do not discuss certain things in public, such as money, religion and politics. Although many of us would have rolled our eyes, there was truth in their advice and it may hold even more truth today – especially given the recent political election.

Joseph Grenny, co-founder of the corporate training company called VitalSmarts, says traditional wisdom dictates that all political talk should be avoided, because of the idea that it’s inherently destructive.

“It turns out, based on some studies we’ve done particularly recently,” Grenny says, “that it’s possible to talk about sensitive subjects like politics and have it become a binding and unifying effect, rather than a divisive one.”

But how to engage in political conversation with someone who holds a drastically different view? Grenny says both side should consider taking these four approaches for a more positive outcome.

First, enter a conversation focused on learning, rather than convincing.

“So, everybody would love to tell you what they think and why they think it,” he says. “If you set up a contract at the beginning that you’d really like to understand their point of view and share yours, it changes the tenor of the conversation.”

Second, ask for permission. It can sound something like: I think you’re a reasonable person, I am too – let’s talk about our differences. I’d like to hear your opinions but I also want to be able to voice mine.

“The nice thing about asking for permission is that it also gives you an exit ramp,” he says. “Having contracted for that and asking permission, allows you to then, if the conversation goes awry, to be able to say, Hey it looks like this isn’t working. I’d rather preserve the relationship than continue the conversation, so why don’t we just set this aside?”

Third, show a little respect.

“This one sounds insultingly simple, but it’s remarkably significant,” he says. “As they open up, as they start to share their opinion, maybe you don’t agree with the opinion but as you start to understand the logic behind it or the life experience that led them to where they are.”

These strategies work in tandem, Grenny says. The off-ramp, set up by asking for permission at the outset, allows people to leave a conversation if the opinion of another person is incendiary enough to provoke an emotional response, rather than a learning one.

Fourth, look for common ground, Grenny says.

“Even in the most hotly divided opinions, you’ll find that there are common values that people share,” he says. “We all care about domestic security, we care about the economy…it’s the policies that help you achieve those that we tend to disagree about. So as people are sharing their different opinions, looking for the values that you agree with helps again to create a sense of value and appreciation.”

Post by Nadia Hamdan.