Tricky political conversations? How to have them - from the conference room to the kitchen table

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Navigating political conversations in the workplace with emotional intelligence


I’m writing this to you from my hometown of Franklin Grove, Illinois (population 950). I’m here visiting my family for Father’s Day weekend, so I get to see both my dad and mom, but also my 91-year-old grandmother who still lives nearby.

My family and I don’t always see eye-to-eye on politics, so I thought about how the skills I try to use to navigate tricky family conversations about politics are also useful in our legal workplaces.

This seemed like an especially appropriate topic for today - Flag Day.

As we celebrate the adoption of the Stars and Stripes, it’s a perfect moment to reflect on the values and principles that unite us, even in our diversity. Politics, a topic closely tied to these values, can sometimes be a challenging subject to navigate, especially in the workplace.

As legal professionals, we often find ourselves at the intersection of law and politics, making it crucial to handle political discussions with emotional intelligence and the civility that we should always bring to our organizations and the profession.

Here’s some ideas on how to handle political conversations effectively:

1. Practice Active Listening

When political topics arise, it’s essential to listen actively. This means fully concentrating, understanding, responding, and remembering what the other person is saying. Active listening shows respect and acknowledges the other person's perspective, which is fundamental in maintaining a healthy workplace dynamic.

Practical Tip: Use phrases like "I hear what you're saying," or "That's an interesting point," to validate the speaker's opinion, even if you disagree.

2. Stay Curious, Not Confrontational

Approach political conversations with curiosity rather than confrontation. Asking questions to understand the other person's viewpoint can transform a potentially divisive discussion into a learning opportunity.

Practical Tip: Ask open-ended questions like, "Can you tell me more about your perspective on this?" This shows you're interested in understanding rather than debating.

3. Find Common Ground

In our polarized world, finding common ground can be a powerful tool. Focus on shared values and goals instead of differences. This can help to de-escalate tensions and foster a more collaborative environment.

Practical Tip: Identify and highlight areas of agreement. For example, "We both care about justice and fairness; we just have different ideas on how to achieve it."

4. Set Boundaries

It's important to know your limits and set boundaries when necessary. If a conversation becomes too heated or uncomfortable, it’s okay to steer it in a different direction or politely exit the discussion.

Practical Tip: Use respectful statements like, "I think this conversation is getting a bit intense. Maybe we can agree to disagree," or "Let's revisit this topic another time."

5. Use Data and Facts Wisely

In the legal profession, we rely heavily on facts and data. Bringing in credible information can help ground the conversation in reality and reduce emotional reactivity.

Practical Tip: Reference reputable sources and avoid using data selectively. For instance, "According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, a significant percentage of Americans share concerns about this issue, which suggests it's important to many people."


Data and Research Insights

A recent study from Utah State University's Jon M. Huntsman School of Business found that discussing politics at work can enhance job satisfaction and commitment to the organization, provided the discussions are an exchange of perspectives with mutual give and take, rather than political pressuring. Emotional intelligence plays a crucial role in navigating these conversations. According to research by TalentSmart, emotional intelligence accounts for 58% of performance in all types of jobs, making it a critical skill for legal professionals.

Final Thoughts

As we commemorate Flag Day, let's remember that our strength lies in our ability to engage with each other respectfully, even when we disagree. By practicing emotional intelligence, we can ensure that political discussions in the workplace remain productive and enriching, rather than divisive.

Here's to fostering a workplace culture where diverse perspectives are not just tolerated but valued. Happy Flag Day, and let's continue to uphold the values that our flag represents, both in our legal practice and beyond.