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Politics in the Workplace

How to Engage in Difficult Conversations without Conflict

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Impeachment. Upcoming elections. Brexit. Politics is taking over our newsfeeds, monopolizing a more-than-usual amount of brain space. And, it could soon be taking over your office — if it hasn’t already.

Politics, much like religion, can be a sticky-wicket. Some people may have no qualms discussing either topic in the workplace, differing views be damned. Others may want to join in the conversation but are nervous about upsetting anyone — particularly anyone in leadership. And still others may want to avoid the topic at all costs.


But inevitably, these sensitive topics are going to come up at work — and some may even argue that it’s good to have such conversations, that it’s the only way people can really show up to work as their authentic selves. Unfortunately, that leaves the door open to something that most of us want to avoid: conflict.

If these kinds of discussions are handled properly, however, it could help create a culture of trust, inclusion and understanding.

Such is the opinion of Scott Warrick. Warrick previously worked in human resources before opting to go into law. During his legal career, he has focused on conflict resolution, among other areas. He even went so far as to write a book, Solve Employee Problems Before They Start: Resolving Conflict in the Real World.

“You’ve got to control yourself,” Warrick said. “We’re wired to go to flight to fight — and neither of these works.”

But how, then, can we avoid messy disagreements in the workplace, especially when it comes to such sticky topics as politics?

Warrick’s years of experience and research have led him to what he calls “EPR.” Much like CPR, EPR is the step-by-step on how to engage in difficult conversations, without the conflict.

Step 1: Empathetic Listening

The first thing to do when a co-worker starts waxing poetic on their chosen candidate is simple: listen. But, Warrick warns, don’t listen with the intent of responding — that is not empathetic, and you will miss the nuances of what is being said. This is where the concept of emotional intelligence will come in handy.

“You’ve got to be an emotional adult,” he said. “You can’t be a five-year-old.”

Part of this, he explains, is trying to see where the other person is coming from: Based on their experiences, what they have seen and heard in their life, do you understand how they came to their conclusion — even if it’s perhaps not entirely accurate, factually speaking?

Step 2: Parroting

In the second stage of EPR, the listener needs to show that they have, in fact, been engaging in empathetic listening.

“This shows that I really am listening from your perspective,” Warrick said. And, that last part is imperative.

So, when Co-Worker A goes on and on about why Bernie Sanders is the only candidate worth considering in the upcoming election, Co-Worker B — who adamantly disagrees with this viewpoint — has the opportunity to not only avoid conflict, but also learn something.

For example:

Co-Worker A: “… And that’s why Bernie is the only choice.”

Co-Worker B: “So, you are saying that you like Bernie because of his stance on universal health care and his social justice work. Is that right?”

Co-Worker A: “Yes, exactly!”

Now, there may be times where it’s not as simple as this. Perhaps the exchange goes more like this:

Co-Worker B: “So, you are saying that you like Bernie because of his stance on universal health care and his social justice work. Is that right?”

Co-Worker A: “Well, yes, but it’s also because of his experience yada-yada-yada and so on and so forth.”

Co-Worker B: “So, it’s because of this, that and the other thing?”

Co-Worker A: “Right.”

Warrick is very clear on this point: Whatever you do, DO NOT stop repeating back what was said until you both agree that you understand what was originally said.

Step 3: Reward

Once you have listened and acknowledged that you understood what was said, you get to the “reward” stage.

“This isn’t necessarily agreeing,” Warrick said. “But I’m going to validate that you have a right to your opinion.”

Warrick uses the example of going home for the holidays, where there is at least one relative who is going to have viewpoints that differ massively from yours. Every year, you may cringe thinking about how you have to engage with Uncle Arnold and his racist ramblings, but by using EPR, Warrick asserts that you can reach this critical point:

You: “So, Uncle Arnold, you think that this is true because XYZ, is that right?”

Uncle Arnold: “Yep.”

You: “Ah. I see your point. I don’t agree, but I do see where you are coming from.”

End rant. Uncle Arnold will feel like you actually heard him, thereby preserving the one thing that he, like all humans, values the most: his self-esteem. He trusts you and feels included.

He feels understood.

And, bonus points: You have successfully avoided getting into a screaming match at yet another holiday get-together.

“People are afraid someone is going to tell them what to think,” Warrick said. By implementing EPR, you not only avoid that issue, “you might learn something about the way you think.”

About the Author

Stephanie N. Rotondo is managing editor of Workspan and #evolve magazines.

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