Charles Purdy over on Monster’s blog makes some great points on how to have civil political discussions in the workplace. Here’s my two cents – tidbits from my experience effectively navigating political conversations.
First off, today is November 2nd, election day in the United States.
In the US there are two main sides in the political spectrum, at least these are the two sides that get the most play in the media. They are represented by two parties, the Democratic and the Republican. There are cross overs – rarely is anything in life stark – but for the most part they are defined as a tendency toward liberalism and a tendency toward conservatism. Words change meanings over time, so the words don’t quite fit what the two sides are after, but for you readers outside the US. Liberalism tends toward more social freedom and toward more regulation of the economy. Conservatism tends toward more regulation of social issues and more freedom of the economy.
Here’s how I’ve learned to interact with the two sides, fairly amicably.
Most people in the US are not too politically savvy. That’s not a value judgement. For the most part most Americans do not feel the need to be extremely concerned with what their local, state, or federal government is doing. Therefore they know politics through a little bit of reading, some TV snippets, and catch phrases cycling through the popular culture.
If you find you are dealing with someone who is more liberal. You must first establish that you care about other people. First. Then once that’s established you can have a discussion on ways in which this care can be accomplished.
I’ve found if you do this effectively you can actually talk about things from a conservative perspective without raising the other person’s cackles.
There is a caveat. Vocabulary. There are certain words and phrases that identify you as an adherent of liberalism. Likewise there are certain words and phraseology that identify you with conservatism.
Interestingly enough, often times these words and phrases are ambiguous enough that you can use them on either side of the issue depending on your context and how you phrase things.
The same is true for conservatives. When you speak to someone who’s a conservative you must first establish that you believe in principles and effectiveness. I know, I’m quite broad in my terminology, human interaction is more an art than a science (at least when you’re crafting a short article). After you’ve established yourself in the space of principles and effectiveness, then you can discuss how to care for people.
What often happens in less than civil discussions between two people on different sides of the issue is what is a signal for one to interact is the exact signal for the other to disengage.
You talk to a conservative and start off “touchy-feely” you’ve identified yourself as a liberal, are probably crazy, and therefore an opponent. If you talk to a liberal and start off on principle and effectiveness you’ve set yourself up as a evil conservative and are therefore an opponent.
This brings me to the second point of politics in the workplace. Identification.
People identify with their political party in the US. Even if they do not spend too much time contemplating it. There are die-hard sports fans for the local team know very little about their current team. It’s not a knock on them. They choose to spend their time and attention on other aspects of life, everyone makes those choices.
I think of identification like the mathematical term, identity. A = A. 5 = 5. One side is the same as the other side.
Democrat = Me. Republican = Me. Liberal = Me. Conservative = Me.
Based upon those equations, what happens when you denigrate a party? You’ve denigrated the person. The two are connected, because in the person’s mind the two are almost the same.
It’s the same phenomenon in sports.
What makes things more touchy, is when other things are glommed onto the identification. Say ethnicity, culture or sub-culture, economic or social class, cause, etc… Then things become somewhat of a minefield with the person you’re dealing with. People who tend to have a strong coupling to many of these tend to be quite politically involved. Discussions with them tend to flow toward one of their touch points.
So how do you navigate political discussion in the office?
KNOW YOUR ENVIRONMENT.
Which means know who you’re talking to. Understand that who you’re talking to brings their own internal environment to the conversation.
Know that people generally bring three types of attitudes to the conversation. They want to interact, they want to be left alone, or they want to fight.
You’ve interacted with adults before. You intuitively know the signals and signs of annoyance and burgeoning aggression.
Know your environment and you can have a pleasant conversation with a liberal, conservative, libertarian, or marxist.
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