What if your CEO said to you in casual conversation at work, “Gaza should be blown off the map! Take them all out!“ When I heard about this experience during an interview, I wondered what I would have done. If you’re not aligned with this view, you might consider speaking up and sharing your perspective. But it’s the CEO. Some might consider this a “career-ending move.” So you have to ask yourself, is it worth it? Should I speak up for what I believe, or should I prioritize my career trajectory and the financial well-being of my children?
Whether you like it or not, conversations about politics are happening in the workplace. In some states like Rhode Island, it’s happening a lot (71% of the time), while in many states like California, Illinois, New York, and Maryland it’s closer to 50% of the time.
A 2022 PwC survey suggests that political conversations at work are having a positive impact. People said that it allowed them to understand their colleagues (41%), created a more open and inclusive work environment (34%), helped them process their views (32%), made them more confident to share their views (31%, and increased their empathy (28%).
However it’s not surprising that these types of conversations can cause problems. According to a recent study, 64% of these interactions result in arguments among coworkers. Many choose to not engage at all. 55% of employees fear that sharing their political views could harm their relationships with colleagues, and 45% say revealing their political beliefs could hurt their chances at promotion and change their manager’s opinion of them. A 2022 SHRM survey found that 1 in 5 U.S. workers experienced poor treatment, and 13% say they’ve been bullied due to their views. Moreover, in these last few weeks people have lost their jobs because of their opinions!
If you find yourself in a political conversation at work where your views are not aligned:
It’s easy to get triggered around emotionally charged topics, especially those that involve life and death. When this happens, it activates your sympathetic nervous system, your fight or flight or freeze reaction. Your body might tighten. Your heart rate might increase. Your breath might get more shallow. And, you might say or do something that could be harmful to your relationships and your employment status.
In the moment that you are triggered, it’s critical that you remember to take a deep breath! The breath is the critical pause between stimulus and response. It offers you a reset so that you can respond with words and tone you won’t regret later. You might still choose to disagree with your colleague, but your delivery will be much more effective. There are powerful breathing techniques you can do to calm your nervous system in this way. The first is Belly Breathing. As I share in my book Black People Breathe, here’s how you do it:
- Take a long deep inhalation and allow your belly to expand like a balloon.
- As you exhale, allow the belly to move towards your spine.
- Repeat as many times as needed, especially as you are listening to your colleagues’ point of view.
The second breathing technique is the Extra-Long Exhalation. Try it right now as you read this: Wherever you are in the breath, exhale for as long as possible. Don’t make it a loud audible sigh, as that might exacerbate the situation. Instead, take a long silent exhalation, and notice your shoulders fall away from your ears. Notice your body begin to calm.
Both of these breathing techniques stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. It functions like putting on the breaks, when the triggered sympathetic nervous system is flooring the gas pedal. The parasympathetic nervous system is also known as the rest and digest nervous system. It allows you to remain calm and think clearly.
During this breath, this pause between stimulus and response, you can then decide how you want to engage. You’d be surprised how much your brain can consider in such a short amount of time, but mindfulness is a powerful thing.
8 Mindful Questions to Consider:
- What are your intentions? – Is it to make your point heard? Is it to try to convince them? Is it to encourage some sort of action or corporate initiative?
- Is this a one-on-one conversation or a public forum? – People tend to be more defensive when criticized in front of others, however your intention will guide you as to how this impacts your decision.
- What are the power dynamics and your relative levels in the organization? – Is this person your boss, someone significantly more senior? Or does this person work for you? Are they a colleague whose help you need to push through a big project?
- What will the impact be to your employment status and promotion prospects? – Power dynamics, the specific personality you’re engaging with, and the company’s overarching stance on the topic all could play a role here.
- How will this impact your relationship to this person? – Are they a “water under the bridge” sort of person or someone that holds grudges? Will they let this impact how you collaborate on work projects?
- What is the likelihood of them being swayed? – For some people, no matter what you say, if you’re not aligned with their views there is zero chance they will be open to even listening. Others are more even keeled and want to engage in logical discussion and debate. Where on the spectrum is this person?
- Will you regret not saying anything? – We’ve all had moments in our careers,and for me this is when I was more junior in the org, where we didn’t speak up for what we believed in and regretted it later. Pause and consider, would this be one of those moments for you?
- Are you in the right mindspace to engage right now? – Check in and notice how you’re feeling at that moment. Notice if your heart rate is going up as they’re talking. Notice if you’re triggered. Notice if you have it in you to engage, or whether perhaps you want to decide to address it later.
You have the power to decide what to do in this situation. Below are four key options to consider, though like all things, there are always additional approaches.
- Say nothing. Smile and nod, and pretend that it’s not bothering you. This isn’t the easiest thing to do, but perhaps it gets you through the moment without a negative impact on your relationships and career trajectory. If you answered the mindful questions above and decided on this choice, you will be able to sleep at night knowing your reasons.
- Change the subject. You can kindly tell your colleague that you prefer to avoid political conversations at work and you prefer to keep your opinion to yourself. You can also pivot the conversation to a work-related topic. For example, you might say, “I hear you. These are really hard times,” pause, and follow up with, “I wanted to talk to you about the XYZ project and make sure we were aligned.”
- Stay neutral and focus on common ground. Stick to middle-of-the road comments like, “I think we can agree that this is a challenging time for all sides.” Or, “I think we can acknowledge that the loss of any life can be devastating.” Despite our differences, there is always something that we have in common, so try to stay in that lane if possible.
- Respectfully share your point of view. Be sure to first listen to what they are saying, whether you agree with them or not, rather than just waiting for them to finish so you can get your word in. Then share your thoughts without demonizing their perspective. Don’t try to “win.” Don’t take it personally. And, recognize when it’s the right time to end the conversation because it’s moved to a place that’s not productive.
Special note to those in a Leadership:
If you are a leader that values inclusivity and wants to create a safe space for your colleagues:
In casual conversations, please be mindful of the power dynamics and try to be self-aware of your own biases. Research from Harvard Business Review found that “people valued their own opinion around a third more than that of others and that leaders often live in a self-assured bubble thinking that they know what matters to others even when they really don’t.” Be open to the opinions of others, and remember that just because you have a senior title doesn’t mean that you’re always right.
If you notice that members of your team are struggling, be proactive about reaching out. Ask them what support they might need whether it’s taking some time off or mental wellness resources, let them know that you care.
If you decide to make a public statement to your team, be clear on your intentions for doing so. Are you trying to create a forum for discussion and bring people together? Are you trying to help your team feel supported and heard? Are you trying to take the temperature down during a heated period? Are you trying to communicate your company’s political and ethical stance? Whatever it might be, be intentional about what you’re trying to achieve and be sure to communicate that.
However, it’s important to be aware that you’re not going to be able to please everyone. According to a recent study, almost half of employees say their employer has spoken out or made a public statement about politically charged events—but it missed the mark. 41% said they usually disagree with the statements their company has made, and 38% say they felt embarrassed by the statements made.
At the end of the day, we are all human beings who want to be loved, valued, and respected. Let’s all remember the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Zee Clarke is the author of the book, Black People Breathe (Penguin Random House). She has been featured in many leading publications including ABC, Fortune, Forbes, CNBC, Ebony, Essence, and Fast Company.
She is a Harvard Business School graduate who applies holistic healing practices to corporate environments. Zee leads transformative workshops on mindfulness, breathwork and stress management tools at organizations such as Google, Visa, AMC Networks and more.