Afraid to Talk Politics With Co-Workers? Here Are Some Thoughts on Navigating Differences

Intense political differences tend to keep people apart – at work, at home, and in communities. What’s the key to easing tension and opening dialog?

Are there people in your life — at home, at work, in your social circle — with whom you don’t dare discuss certain public figures or political issues?

In these polarized times, the answer likely is yes. Opposing political views, and the fear of raising them, can create barriers and simmering, under-the-surface resentments. That’s not conducive to harmonious families or smoothly functioning workplaces. So, what’s to be done? The ideal answer is not to clam up and avoid political topics but to engage in some manner so that parties on both sides of the question at least understand and respect each other.

Beyond stereotypes

Maybe I’m naïve, but I believe people on different sides mostly want the same things and simply disagree on the best way to get them. For example, most of us would like to see an end to poverty. The cliché conservative would accuse liberals of thinking the only remedy is massive government welfare. The cliché liberal would accuse conservatives of being cruel and wanting to let poor families starve unless they pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Of course, these clichés are wrong. Almost everyone and every issue is more nuanced than that; the true beliefs lie somewhere in the middle. Reasonable people can see this. Those on the right and the left have more in common than they want to admit. That common ground is a place to start.

As an example, consider a friend and business associate of mine, who passed away a couple of years ago. We identified with different parties, often vigorously. Still, we could discuss politics over lunch and at times not only agree to disagree but come away with our positions softened and moved a bit toward the middle. It wasn’t just because neither of us held extreme positions. It was because we respected each other.

Building bridges

My friend liked to say that in discussions over drinks at his favorite watering hole, he could get a group of friends to come to a consensus on almost any issue, including something as contentious as abortion, in as little as half an hour. It was just a matter of getting the participants to shed their political identity masks and talk openly.

I guess it helped that besides being an intelligent and thoughtful person, my friend was a trained facilitator. Maybe a little chemical lubrication also helped move those discussions toward the center. Still, my friend fundamentally believed that few differences of opinion were too wide to be bridged.

The lesson I learned was that we shouldn’t miss opportunities to open up dialogue and see where things lead. In my experience, it is surprising how quickly the defenses fall aside when, in a conversation with someone of opposite persuasion, I stop and say, “Oh, really? Tell me why.” And then, maybe, “I see, but have you stopped to consider …”

Once the masks are off, good conversation can follow. That doesn’t mean one person comes around to the other’s viewpoint. The two opinions might not budge at all. But the undertone of hostility goes away, or at least is mitigated. There is a certain power in being able to agree to disagree.

In the workplace

At work isn’t the best place to resolve political differences, and it’s not even the best place to bring them up. But regardless, when we come to work we bring our political views and preferences with us; it can’t be otherwise.

Isn’t it better, when working out in the plant or sitting in the break room, if we don’t harbor silent grudges about our co-workers’ politics? The gears of cooperation turn more smoothly when people more deeply understand and respect each other’s differences. That’s as true on the job as in the home and the community.   


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