If Political Talk at Work Is Making You Crazy

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We’ve all heard that it’s not smart to talk about contentious issues, like politics or religion, at the office. Some companies even have rules against discussing political and other potentially inflammatory matters in the workplace.

And most of us agree, at least in theory, that it’s wise to avoid talking politics with your colleagues. And yet in this election season it seems that a rising tide of workers are complaining that it’s tough to escape from distracting, annoying and sometimes upsetting political commentary.

(Fotolia by Adobe)
(Fotolia by Adobe)

After hearing from coaching clients who are tired of too much talk about the candidates, I looked around for suggestions from people who seem to remain serene despite the cacophony. Among them is Connie East, co-owner of the Thyme Restaurants – including a lively bar – in Culpeper, Virginia. For 20 years I’ve watched Connie remain unruffled while customers try to provoke her with outrageous opinions.

According to Connie, it’s not too hard to politely cope with people who want to impose their views on you. She says the secret is, “Don’t engage.” The key technique Connie suggests is to “Stay neutral. Say something like, ‘Oh, is that what you think?’ Or parrot their words back to them in a calm manner. Then shift the topic to something less volatile.”

I agree that “never engage” is the go-to strategy for coping with overly political colleagues. But the best way to respond may depend on your situation. If too much political talk is getting you down, first diagnose the problem, then try these approaches:

  • If they keep mentioning candidates. It’s easy to ignore the occasional reference to politicians, but if co-workers won’t stop talking about them it’s OK to ask them to cease. The best thing is to be polite but direct. You might say, “I don’t like to talk about politics at work. I find that it’s too easy for me to feel distracted, and I need to concentrate on this deadline.”
  • If they talk too much about everything.  We are in the midst of a highly political season so it’s not surprising the topic keeps coming up. But your basic problem may be co-workers who talk too much about anything in the news, from sports to the weather. While you don’t want to be rude, you can set boundaries. It’s appropriate to say, “I can’t take the time to talk now because I’ve got a deadline.” To keep the conversation on track during meetings, always propose an agenda, and keep sticking to it. If you find yourself frequently cutting off chatty co-workers, but you want to stay friends, show it’s not personal by finding opportunities for them to express themselves. Suggest a lunch or coffee break, and devote that time to listening to whatever they want to say.
  • If you disagree with their opinions. Do you feel uncomfortable because you work with people who think and vote in different ways than you do? It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to stop them from making occasional comments. But you can decide how much to let it bother you. When you can’t just walk away, take a lesson from successful politicians and let the rhetoric just flow on by. Vociferous political speech is part of our culture. You might think of it like the weather – it may get stormy, but it’s not about you, and it soon it will pass.
  • If they start talking at you. If you don’t learn to restrain your kneejerk reaction to their obnoxious partisan comments, there’s a danger that teasing you could become a popular office sport. Some people enjoy arguing about politics but if you don’t, then don’t take the bait. If you stop rising to their remarks, you’ll ruin their fun and they may stop bothering you.
  • If it’s over the top. There’s a difference between annoying, dogmatic dialogue and hate speech. If colleagues describe your favorite candidate as an idiot, that’s not about you and it’s best to let it go. But if they make repeated comments that are racist, homophobic, misogynous or otherwise demeaning to an entire class of people, that certainly can feel like it’s directed at you. Sweeping dismissive comments can create a hostile, unproductive workplace, and you don’t have to put up with it. Go to your boss or the human resources department and let them know about the situation.

The best way to escape a political diatribe can be to walk away or tune it out. But if you find yourself drawn into the conversation, don’t make it worse. Maintain a matter-of-fact, analytical tone and focus on the issues. And never make derisive personal comments, even about your least favorite candidate.

For more tips about smart communications at the office, check out my book, “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO.”

Beverly Jones, an alum of Ohio University, is a former lawyer and Fortune 500 executive, is an executive and transitions coach, and a leadership consultant with a broad and varied practice. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.