Talking Sense

Political conversations at work may seem risky, but stifling them is risky, too

A seated crowds holds up signs
Pro-Palestine and pro-Israel supporters fill the council chambers before the Minneapolis city council votes on a resolution calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war on Jan. 25.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Trying to have conversations in a workplace about big cultural or political issues can be fraught. 

This month, hospital leadership at Hennepin Healthcare postponed an event intended to focus on Palestinian culture over fears that outsiders might attend.

“We became concerned when a post was made by the guest speaker on her Instagram account asking for more people to be present because ‘Zionists’ were going to be there,” said spokesperson Christine Hill. “This was not a public event, and we did not understand her concerns when this was supposed to be a celebration of Palestinian culture and heritage.”

In response, some employees quit their organizing positions and accused the hospital of censoring them

Hennepin Healthcare is hardly alone, said George Vergolias, chief clinic officer for R3 Continuum, a Minnesota-based company that helps employers navigate challenging workplace discussions. In the midst of a deeply polarized presidential election, employers from universities to retailers are navigating a world where employees want to be heard and they want their views to be valued.

“Unlike the workforce 30, 40 years ago … people today want to feel like the workforce gets them and understands them,” Vergolias said. “In the modern workforce, you have issues of social injustice, inequality and political divides, especially with us entering a political season here. Those differences in opinions can quickly escalate, and they cause conflicts.”

And conflict can affect team cohesion, innovation and collaboration, all qualities that make for a successful business.

“When we don’t like people, we tend not to collaborate with them. We tend not to be open to their perspectives,” said Vergolias.

Those dynamics, said Vergolias, can have impacts on productivity, creativity and innovation.

Holding a workplace conversation on a sticky subject can quickly go off the rails, but doesn’t need to, said Vergolias. Here are his tips for holding productive workplace conversations across political divides.

Sensitive conversations — with limits

Vergolias said that handling these difficult conversations sensitively is key. 

“It isn’t a perspective of choosing right or wrong on a given issue. It is a perspective of, how do we ensure that all of our workers, all of our constituents feel heard and understood as best we can.”

But business leaders must also recognize that there’s a limit to how far the company’s actions and discussions can go.

“At the same time, we have to keep the business objectives moving forward. And we have to kind of keep that in mind that we have multiple responsibilities, a fiduciary responsibility to keep the business going,” he said. 

Get specific

Vergolias said it’s crucial that management and employees are clear on their concerns at the start. When those concerns aren’t articulated up front, it’s hard to come up with clear goals for having these facilitated discussions.

And having clear goals is essential, too, though getting both sides to agree about a heated topic may not be realistic or necessary.

“The goal is we want to get to a place where it just isn’t vitriolic, that people could at least find enough commonality in their humaneness to respect one another and continue to co-create in the workplace,” Vergolias said.

Failing to read the room and be clear about employees’ concerns can doom a conversation. Vergolias saw that happen during a facilitated conversation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. He said both sides were deeply entrenched on the issue. 

“From minute one, it was a shouting match,” he said. “What we might have done is actually had individual facilitated discussions in a more intra-group dynamic … and then you could start exploring what is each group’s openness to hearing differing perspectives.”

Assume grace and good intent

Vergolias said it’s important to assume that the person you’re talking to also wants to turn down the heat in a difficult discussion.

“If we approach a conversation, assuming the other side is trying to just get us, or trying to give us a gotcha moment, or being just distrustful, we’re going to have glasses on that interpret information in that way,” he said.

Be curious and ask questions

Curiosity can be a powerful tool, said Vergolias. Ask clarifying questions and present them as a way to better understand where the other side is coming from. Then paraphrase their views back to them.

“It makes them feel heard and understood,” he said. “And now they’re open to hearing a little bit more open to hearing what your perspective is.

Finding common ground unrelated to the topic at hand, such as hobbies, family life or shared experiences, can help soften the conversation, too. 

Shed your ego

So often, people enter these discussions with the goal of changing someone’s mind, Vergolias said. Acting differently requires giving up ego. Because with ego comes the desire to be “right.”

“When that ego gets in there, that’s when people get really, really entrenched,” he said.