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The list of politically and emotionally divisive issues on the national agenda is long this presidential election year. And bringing them up at work can be a dicey proposition.
New York CNN  — 

It’s a fair bet that you work with some people whose views differ strongly from yours on politically and emotionally charged issues — the upcoming US presidential election, Donald Trump’s criminal indictments, Gaza, reproductive rights and climate change, to name just a few.

Or maybe you just differ on how threatening those issues are. Sometimes someone with strong views can be unnerved by a person who thinks nothing is ever a big deal, and vice-versa.

Either way, the question is: How can we keep our conversations about any of these lightening rod issues from derailing our ability to work well together?

For employers: Stress civility and set guardrails

Regardless of any one hot-button issue, it seems like US culture has become less civil over time. And many polarizing conversations are happening at work in ways they weren’t years ago, according to SHRM, the leading human resources membership association.

In response, it recently created a civility index.

Its pulse survey of 1,600 employees in March, while not necessarily representative of all US workers, found that respondents rated their workplaces as more civil than everyday life, but they indicated that 39% of the incivility they witnessed or experienced happened at work. Incivility is defined as rude, berating or inconsiderate behavior, lack of manners, not keeping promises or failing to take accountability when you make a mistake.

A majority (66%) said they agreed or strongly agreed that incivility reduces productivity, and more than half (59%) said that it hurts employee morale.

Given the known frictions of this election year, HR experts urge employers to get out front of potentially heated moments in the coming months by setting expectations now as to what is and is not acceptable.

“Acknowledge there are tensions in the world and strong emotions on both sides of an issue. [Tell employees] ‘We know this is happening and we know you have strong feelings about it,’” said Christy Pruitt-Haynes, global head of the talent and performance practice at the NeuroLeadership Institute.

But make clear the boundaries for exchanges. For example, Pruitt-Haynes said, you might say, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion – but we won’t tolerate personal attacks – verbal or physical – or talking down to someone if their opinion is different.”

Leaders may want to remind employees of the ways they can report inappropriate behavior if it does arise, said Oliver Brecht, vice president of Workplace Options Consulting Group.

Any executive setting the guardrails should also abide by them. And ideally, private-sector leaders should try not to give any hint of their views on contentious issues, said HR consultant Cindy O’Peka, who works primarily with small and mid-size employers. “It could create an us/them mentality at work. It’s not a good team-building environment.”

For employees: How to keep your cool

If you find yourself in a conversation with someone at work who raises political or social views that you flatly disagree with – or even find offensive – there are many ways to have a civil exchange or to politely disengage.

Take a beat and breathe: Pay attention to how you’re responding internally to what’s being expressed.

“When we take a moment to label what we’re actually feeling, we move our response from the emotional part of our brain to the logical part of our brain,” Pruitt-Haynes said.

Compartmentalize: Put your colleague’s views in perspective. Do they really matter so much that you’re willing to risk creating bad energy by trying to convince them that they’re wrong? (That’s usually a futile exercise, by the way.)

“Don’t use it as a moment to combat and convince. … Recognize that while his opinion may be contrary to yours, what is the goal of being at work? Think long-term. You work for the same employer,” Pruitt-Haynes said.

Focus instead on what he offers of value to you. Say it’s a form of expertise. “Compartmentalize who he is. He is an expert – that’s the part of him you’re engaging with,” she said. “Pivot the conversation back to what your relationship really is about – a professional one.”

Recognize social media’s effect on people’s views: If you or your colleague get a lot of information about events and issues through your social media accounts, your feeds are likely dictated by an algorithm that will highlight posts that either reinforce or influence your beliefs based on your past usage.

“People are being fed through their algorithm. All [we’ve] been listening to is just one side of the argument,” Brecht said. “That leads us to be less tolerable and aware of where the other person is coming from.”

When you have an exchange, keep it civil and educational: You don’t have to agree with someone, but you can be genuinely curious about their views. And you can share how you came to yours.

“Speak from your own experience,” Brecht said. You can ask questions about theirs as well, with respect.

Remember, too, he added, “We can disagree on something but that doesn’t mean we disagree on everything.”

Deflect and de-escalate: If someone is ranting about an issue and you don’t want to engage, simply change the focus, O’Peka suggests. “I’ll say, ‘How is your puppy doing?’ It disarms and redirects them.”

Of course, as is always the case at work, if someone says or does anything threatening or disrespectful, you should bring that to your manager or, if you’re more comfortable, HR. But if a colleague simply expresses a view or displays support for a candidate on their clothes or at their workspace that you disagree with, it’s not necessarily off-limits. It may come down to the policies in your employer’s handbook regarding the dress code and other guidance on maintaining a cordial workplace, O’Peka noted.