Remember when the presidential election was over and everyone breathed a sigh of relief, thinking we could all go back to talking about sports and kids, not politics?
Of course, that's not what happened at all: Contentious political conversations abound everywhere, from Facebook to daycare to the corner bar.
But when they spring up in the workplace, awkward can become inappropriate.
"No good comes from it," Alec Beck, a labor and employment attorney at Ford Harrison in Minneapolis, told Inc. "All it does is make people mad."
But staying away from political talks in the workplace is about as easy as keeping it secret that someone put out doughnuts in the break room.
(Note: If you are the one who thinks you have every right to speak politics in the workplace, hold it right there. Not only are Freedom of Speech rights not protected in the workplace, you may also inadvertently be veering into issues of race, gender, age or religion, which are protected by the federal Civil Rights Act's Title VII. )
Still, trying to steer away from political conversations is a win-win strategy, according to Gregg Ward, author of "The Respectful Leader: Seven Ways To Influence Without Intimidation," told Inc.
He and other workplace and communication experts suggested these tactics for avoiding or defusing political conversations at work:
Buy time. When co-workers are hanging out and someone asks you if you saw the latest news or something an elected official said about a particular issue, "play dumb," Ward advised. "Someone with a strong opinion will go into teaching mode instead of venting emotionally. This gives you time to listen and respond appropriately."
Look for common ground. To give the impression that you're still involved in the conversation, respond in a way that's completely true but still impartial. Ward recommended saying, "I think we can all agree that's a very controversial (or loaded or difficult or challenging) topic."
Be authentic, not transparent. It's hard to work with someone everyday and not mention [recent political developments], Liane Davey, co-founder of 3COze Inc. told Harvard Business Review. But you don't need to get drawn in just because the topic comes up.
"Being authentic doesn't equal transparent," she said. "Don't be a Clinton supporter in the women's washroom and a Trump supporter with your boss, but you also don't need to be fully candid about everything you think and feel."
Artfully shift the conversation toward a neutral subject, Davey suggested, or focus on related topics that aren't candidate specific, like the lack of nonpartisan media coverage. "Speak about the process, not the candidate," she said.
Employ a bit of humor. You may be able to avoid a lengthy political discussion by poking a little fun at the instigator, according to Ward. "If they're a halfway decent person you can look at them with a big smile and say, 'Tell us what you really think' and they'll realize they've gone over the top," he said.
Disengage. If you find that you can't keep your cool, take responsibility for being frustrated and angry, and exit the conversation, HBR recommended. But if a colleague's incessant political talk is both "grating and distracting," speak directly to your colleague in simple straightforward terms that indicate you don't want to talk and you're getting back to work now.
Ward added that none of these tactics will work with a sociopath. "If somebody's a true sociopath what I generally say is, 'You'll have to excuse me -- I have to use the restroom,' and I will literally walk away," he said. "I'm not going to win with that person. They are going to cause an explosion."
So if we're not talking politics, what will we say instead?
When politics have dominated workplace conversations in the past, you may need inspiration to start focusing your non-business talk on something more appropriate (and enjoyable.) The Balance reported on these potential topics:
- Talk about dogs. Even people who don't love dogs can usually entertain a few minutes of doggie anecdotes.
- Talk about vacation plans. Whether you're going somewhere fun, just returned or bemoaning that this time last year you were somewhere much more enchanting, your co-workers may like to hear about it.
- Share recipes. Everybody's got to eat. Share your own culinary adventures (think of it like Instagram without the photo), or ask your colleagues for a recipe you might use for, say, a date night or to take to a potluck.
- Recommend a restaurant. Extra points if it's near work or great lunch spots.
- Talk about books, movies or television shows. Everyone can use news of the entertaining. This suggestion does not extend to politicized choices, though.