Emotions: If you must talk about politics at work, a trauma expert tells you how

Here are some things you can do when politics come up in conversation at work.
The Whole Human

If you must talk about politics at work, a trauma expert tells you how

The topic of politics has always come up in the workplace, and, for years, many of us have been able to control our emotions and engage in respectful dialogue. But the recent election season and the current U.S. presidency have some of us so on edge that defensive debate and discord are coming to the forefront more than ever before.

Different people deal with political stress in different ways. Some may identify like-minded colleagues and find solace deep in their red or blue camps. Some may not talk about issues in the office—and then silently engage on social media. And some may avoid conflict altogether.

Regardless of political leaning or approach to political issues at work, it’s clear: what’s going on in our country has deeply affected many of us.

Now, more than ever, it feels like many Americans fundamentally and strongly disagree on deeply held core values. More and bigger issues seem to be at risk. Put together with never-ending news coverage and Twitter feeds, and we have a potentially combustible combination.

According to a recent survey by BetterWorks, 87% of employees read political social media posts at work, and 49% have seen political discussions turn into arguments. Out of the 500 survey respondents, 29% said they have been less productive since the election.

As a psychologist, I’ve worked for years to help people feel heard and help them listen to one another. In these particularly contentious times, with people experiencing limited energy and feelings of hopelessness, it can be hard to conjure up the skills to survive political interactions at work—let alone master them.

Here are some things you can do when politics come up in conversation at work.

Be a good listener

It’s easy to let conversations go off the rails. But you can learn effective communication skills.

These include active listening (making a conscious effort to hear and really understand the message), paraphrasing (repeating back succinctly your understanding of what the person just said in your own words), making good eye contact, and exhibiting open voice tone and body language (e.g., not having your arms crossed in front of your chest).

Take a step back

What underlies some of these conversations is a staunch belief that we’re right. We often assume the worst about the other person, and we try hard to persuade them to see our point of view. Then we want, expect, and demand that our colleagues change—without exerting energy to try to understand their side.

It can be helpful to gain a healthy distance and remember that everyone’s perspective is different and that everyone has the right to have their opinion heard.

Don’t focus on negative emotions

Heated debates can leave us feeling threatened, rejected, or defensive. At best these interactions are stressful and unproductive. They can make us dread going to work the next day and make us not want to see—let alone work with—our colleagues. These feelings can bleed over into our productivity and sanity.

Negative emotions are a part of life. Pushing these emotions away as soon as we feel them often has a boomerang effect. If emotions are not experienced, they can leak or burst when we least expect them to. But if we allow ourselves to feel these emotions, they often come in and flow out like a wave.

If negative emotions persist over a period of time, then seeking ways to process those emotions, such as meditation, physical exercise, or talking with a friend or therapist, may be necessary.

Stop trying to win arguments

We’re not moving forward when we’re arguing. When we engage in adversarial posturing, digging our roots into the earth and daring our colleagues to try and move us, it doesn’t make for effective and efficient workplaces, let alone ones we want to be in.

In Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project advise that mutual agreement should not necessarily be the goal. Rather, we might want to change our aim to a better understanding of others’ perspectives and offer an invitation for joint exploration.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes

People’s choices are complex, and political views recently seem particularly tied to people’s identities and beliefs.

Rather than judge others, can we encourage or even challenge ourselves to actively listen and try to understand others? It’s easier said than done, for sure. But it can be worthwhile.

Be respectful

Life can be hard, and not every person we come into contact at work or in our home community is someone we will click with or understand. We need to decide for ourselves which relationships we need to invest in or make sure they function well enough.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts and intentions, despite our restful sleep and good communication and emotion-regulation skills, we have to realize that some things may not ever get sorted out. Sometimes we are going to have to walk away. And the best we can do is to respectfully agree to disagree.

Dr. Joan Cook is a psychologist, an associate professor at Yale University and an Op-Ed Project Public Voices fellow.